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Adam Presses

Life as we Grow It: Fitness as a Life Skill for Special Needs Populations

“Kettlebell and the sandbag,” Nico states as I’m preparing for him to do squats.

“You want to do farmers carries?”

“Yes,” he says in a soft voice but with an assurance that tells me he’s not just randomly calling out an object in the room.

“Awesome. Yes, you can definitely do farmers carries right after this set of squats, okay?”

“Yes,” he says, in the same low but definitive tone. I’m thrilled. Farmers carries involve roughly 3 steps; Pick something(s) heavy up, carry them while maintaining an upright, healthy posture, and put them down with control, sometimes with less control than other times. Farmers carries have fantastic generalization to other life skills, yes, carrying things of course, in addition to maintaining trunk stability and gait pattern (think climbing two or three flights of steps).

When we consider fitness as a life skill rather than something individuals with ASD and related special needs either “like” or “don’t like” the focus becomes less on “if/should” and more on “how/what.” We’re not just talking about young populations either. Fitness over the lifetime has immense benefits for both short- and long-term development, both proactive and reactive qualities.

That fitness and physical activity are only for young populations disregards the true value of progressive movement programs. As we age, the importance of strength, stability, and motor planning increases, as these are skills that degenerate with age and dis- or non-use. The result is costly, both in quality of life and financially. Consider the healthcare costs for a 55 year old individual with pervasive Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), diabetes, and compromised mobility. Two out of these three complications are entirely avoidable. They are also, with the proper fitness and nutritional interventions, reversible.

Quality of life can be a general, not-certain-what-we-mean-by-this-but-sounds-good term unless we consider it with respect to what those in our care can do and what skills will allow them to be more independent, healthier (physically and emotionally), and enable them to connect with others (building community) in meaningful ways. We also want to consider stress levels and longevity. What does life look like and feel like for a non-verbal individual in his/her 20’s? 30’s? 60’s? How can we ensure the best possible present and future for them?

Let’s take away “Doesn’t like to exercise.” Let’s get rid of that. In fact, I don’t even know what that means. Our definitions and perspectives on exercise programs may a “little” different. I get this interaction a lot;

“Kevin hates exercise.”

“What do you mean by exercise?”

“Oh, well we had him run on the treadmill for five minutes and he hated it and doesn’t want to do it again.”  

The fault isn’t in the trying. There is no fault. There is, however, a lack of information about the components of an appropriate fitness program. So here are the rules;

  • We use exercises that will have the greatest benefit/generalization to life skills. These include squatting, pushing, pulling, carrying, and locomotion.
  • We get a baseline understanding of what an individual can currently do.
  • We progress exercises and movements once an individual demonstrates mastery.

What do we do? What do we doooooooooooooo? What exercises do our athletes need? What’s age appropriate? Are there super special special needs exercise?

The thing about fitness is that we’re doing it with human beings (goat yoga being a hideous exception). Since we’re doing it with human beings, we’re looking at human movement patterns and our individuals with ASD and related special needs are no exception.

The key is learning to what degree an exercise or movement needs to be simplified (regressed) or made more challenging (progressed). This is where baseline comes into play. If where know where our athlete is starting with an overhead Sandbell press, we can decide on an appropriate course of progression, maybe increasing the weight by 4lbs once they can complete 10 repetitions independently.

Understanding how each movement relates to quality of life is helpful. So let’s review that.


  • Maintaining healthy posture when sitting/standing
  • Increasing low body strength for walking/climbing (stairs, etc.)
  • Sustaining healthy posture
  • Prevention of low back pain
  • Increased trunk/core stability


  • Shoulder stability when reaching/placing items overhead
  • Trunk stability and postural control when holding weighted objects
  • Increasing general upper body stability for fine motor movements


  • Development of upper back muscles to decrease forward posture
  • Increased range of motion for shoulders
  • Trunk stability when opening doors, dragging laundry bags
  • Increased control when grabbing objects from above or below


  • Being able to move objects from one place to another independently
  • Increasing postural control and strength endurance (the ability to do a task for a longer period of time)
  • Gait patterning
  • Groceries/laundry/boxes/etc.


  • Getting from point A to point B with minimal discomfort
  • Establishing coordination and motor planning for multi-step activities and ADLs (cooking, taking out the garbage, showering)
  • Decreasing latency (catching the bus, getting to the car in less time)

The reasons why our Autism Fitness programming focuses primarily on developing strength, stability, and motor planning in these movement patterns is because these are the most common deficits and will have the greatest short- and long-term benefit for our athletes. We want to build a physical ability and progress as the athlete demonstrates their improved capabilities.

Programming, for individuals and groups, should include each of these exercises at a level of challenge where the athlete can perform the movement safely and with good technical form. We don’t just have our athletes move a lot, but coach healthy movement. This is why regressions in exercises are so critical and why we spend so much time with them in the Autism Fitness Level I Certification seminars.

As professionals working with and enhancing the lives of individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities, there is a responsibility to provide life-enriching skills and opportunities. So much of this can be found in effective fitness programming. In both reducing the instances of health complications and increasing independent life skills, we can used the development of strength, stability, and motor planning to help build our athlete’s futures.

Photos provided by Eric Chessen.

Eric Chessen, M.S., is an Exercise Physiologist with an extensive background in Applied Behavior Analysis. Eric provides on-site and distance consulting worldwide. He is the founder of Autism Fitness®, offering courses, tools, resources and a community network to empower support professionals to deliver adaptive fitness programming to anyone with developmental deficits to create powerful daily living outcomes that last a lifetime.

Eric Chessen 1

Can’t Vs. Doesn’t Understand; Coaching Towards Learning Style

“Okay, now let’s see a squat, I’m gonna go first and then you try.”

The above is a standard sentence during my PAC Profile assessments and it carries with it powerful proactivity. I just also serendipitously learned that “proactivity” is a real, bona-fide word. When we teach movement, it makes sense to demonstrate first. Explaining to anybody a physical activity they’ve never performed, or performed with questionable technique, will skew towards wheels-fall-off territory early. Proactive practices give us and our athletes more opportunity sooner, and reduce the need to backtrack.

The most efficient use of initial instruction time (the first time we are teaching an exercise) looks like this:

  1. Label
  2. Demonstrate
  3. Provide supported performance

For the ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) population, labeling in particular can have interim or long-term benefit for language (productive and receptive), memory, and independence. If the athlete is familiar with the word “squat” and can equate it to the movement pattern that constitutes a squat (whatever their current ability level), the coach does not have to repeat and demonstrate and repeat and repeat and repeat. Because the athlete already knows. The word squat and the movement squat have been paired in a way that makes sense, and is memorable, for the athlete.

Labeling adds to the lexicon. It’s remarkable just how much functional language we can build through fitness programs. Not only exercise names “squat, press, pull-down, push throw, rope swings…” but objects “Sandbell, rope, cones, Dynamax ball, sandbag…” and abstract concepts including prepositions “in, on, under, right, left, up, down…” When our athletes are actively engaged in fitness activities teaching these terms/concepts is easily presented in a natural manner.

Demonstrating is crucial because it circumvents us and our athlete standing there and staring at one another (or off into the distance for those of our less-eye-contact-inclined friends). We always demonstrate a new exercise; this provides context and a framework for both the learning style and that athlete’s interpretation of what we just did. We’ll learn how they follow visual modeling and, often, how motivated they are to perform the thing they just saw.

Do they get right down to squatting? Are they hesitating? Overwhelmed? We will be given really good clues here.

Providing supported performance means that we are starting the athlete at a level of performance that they are sure to master quickly (if we have to progress the exercise immediately this is a good sign). If we wind up progressing an exercise five times during the first session then good. Good! This translates to the athlete having early successes that can be reinforced. We usually prefer to do the exercises that we’re good at, and our athletes with autism are not much of an exception.

We may provide a physical or guided prompt early on with an exercise to ensure safe and effective technical performance. With the squat this may mean having the athlete hold on to a resistance band attached to a secure, stable area and squatting to an elevated surface (we always use Dynamax balls propped up on cardio step risers).

Depending on physical, adaptive, and/or cognitive ability, we may be able to fade this support in the first session or it could take months.  I have some highly motivated athletes who, because of their physical needs, require longer practice with a given level of an exercise before they’ve reached mastery and can progress. The athlete should be held to the expectation of his/her best current level of performance (unless we’re talking about exceptional amounts of strength or power, because then programming changes a bit).

Efficient and effective coaching enables us to determine how best the athlete will learn a particular exercise. While it’s tempting to classify our athletes as “more visual” or “more kinesthetic” learners I’ve found that it is far better to approach this from an exercise-by-exercise basis. Some of my athletes need physical prompting through the end range of an overhead press but can “get” a band row when I demonstrate pulling my arms back while standing parallel to them.

“Don’t know how” is a misinterpretation of breakdown in effective coaching communication. We need to be instructing with less words, more action. More show than tell.

When our athletes, or any of us, don’t understand the direction, the contingency, or the expectation we freeze, get off-task, get frustrated, or a Lucky Charms marshmallow cornucopia concoction of all three.  Being proactive in coaching means giving our athletes the information they require delivered in a way that is useful.

It is easy to take for granted the neurotypical ability to interpret nuance, abstraction, and implied information; the untold stuff between the clearly marked things. Giving our athletes the context and environment to succeed, especially in the first few sessions or when teaching a new exercises becomes our bridge to success in coaching and performance.

Photos provided by Eric Chessen.

Eric Chessen, M.S., is an Exercise Physiologist with an extensive background in Applied Behavior Analysis. Eric provides on-site and distance consulting worldwide. He is the founder of Autism Fitness®, offering courses, tools, resources and a community network to empower support professionals to deliver adaptive fitness programming to anyone with developmental deficits to create powerful daily living outcomes that last a lifetime.


The 3 Phases of Increased Motivation

“Okay, I have some Dynamax balls, some resistance bands, a few Sandballs, what do you want to try first?” This is usually my first question after I’ve met a new athlete and I begin the PAC Profile assessment. I want to know if there is any particular piece of equipment or movement pattern that they gravitate towards. Yes I want to optimize squatting patterns and trunk stability, and that will occur over time with patience and consistency. The objective within the first few sessions is developing an amiable repoire with the athlete and introducing new activities.

The Benefits of Exercise for Individuals with Autism

Seriously, what aren’t the benefits of fitness for the autism population? As human beings, we all need to move for optimal health and development. Last I checked (approximately four minutes ago), individuals with autism and related disorders were, in fact, human beings. When discussing the inherent benefits of exercise, certainly there are physical, behavioral, and cognitive areas of ability that can receive a boost in quality.


The Top 5 Exercises for Children with Autism

So what movement activities make sense when developing fitness programs for the autism and special needs populations? The same that make sense for most human bodies! Fitness programs should focus primarily on big gross motor movements that are most likely to develop strength, stability, motor planning, and carryover or generalize to other areas of life.