“So every few weeks you change things up, right?”
A common question asked by parents when I begin working with a new athlete in my program.
“I change the exercises once we see independent mastery. Variety is just variety without pre-requisite skills being developed. So yes, I’ll add some new exercises…when it makes sense.”
If there’s one thing I can’t do it might be avoiding long-winded sentences.
For the autism and other neuroadaptive populations, developing strength and enhancing motor skills does not come easily. Pre-existing deficits in motor control and stability can present a challenge for engaging in a variety of physical activities. Many individuals with ASD often find physical activity aversive due to myriad factors. Among these are;
- New/novel tasks and environments
- Instructions that may be unclear
- Elevated anxiety and uncertainty
The pathology behind movement limitations is a combination, mostly a feedback loop, of muscular and neurological impediments. Differentiation in neuronal firing for those with autism causes a delay in neuromuscular performance, often resulting in movement that can be described as “clunky,” “inhibited,” and compensatory patterns are often observed.
Given the importance of fitness, particularly the development of strength and stability for neuroadaptive populations, it is critical to implement programming that addresses strength deficits and contraindicated movement patterns. An effective approach progresses or regresses exercises based on current level of ability.
Criteria for Baseline Mastery (CfBM) is a protocol borrowed from the practice of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). CfBM provides us a clear description of when a skill is mastered and what the requirements are for that goal. Mastery, in this definition, means that the skill can be performed to a particular level independently.
In our Autism Fitness™ programs, we use CfBM to set goals, track progress, and provide appropriate progressions and regressions for each athlete with every exercise. With squats, we very often reduce range of motion (ROM) by having the athlete squat to a box or similar stable platform. Depending on trunk stability, an upper body support may also be required. Having the athlete hold onto a band (held lengthwise by the coach), provides additional support. What we’re after is the athlete’s best performance of the squat with a complete reduction of compensatory movement.
Establishing a standard for performance enables us to set both general and specific goals for each athlete. For squats, as with most of our strength-focused exercises, we use 3 sets of 10 reps as our goal. Within those sets and repetitions, we are looking for stability and control throughout the entire range of motion (hips below parallel). While 3 x 10 may initially read like a standard-issue hypertrophy protocol (not necessarily bad, either), there is further reason to embrace this scheme. Three sets provides enough stimulus for the athlete and enough observational opportunity for the coach for integrity or technical breakdown of the movement. If and when the athlete is able to maintain technical control of the squat for 3 sets of 10 reps, it will be abundantly clear that they have mastered the skill, at least to the current level of challenge.
We use 10 repetitions because it takes us far enough away from maximal loading to be safe (especially for detrained athletes) and an excellent range for improving general strength and muscular development. If an athlete can perform 10 consecutive squats below parallel maintaining rooted foot position and spinal integrity, we have valid claim to progressing the exercise.
For those with neurodevelopmental challenges, it may take months to improve on a particular exercise. Strength and stability aside, proprioception (the real-world “mind/body” relationship) often presents as a particular obstacle. Our athlete may confuse squatting with bouncing or sitting, intentionally or unintentionally rushing through the exercise.
We have to be careful in assessing the underlying reason for the bounce and/or sit squat. When we consider through the lens of the PAC Profile™, we ask whether this is a physical, adaptive, and/or cognitive concern. For each possibility, we can apply particular questions.
Physical: Is the squat progressed beyond the current capability of the athlete and are they compensating as a result?
Adaptive: Is the athlete sufficiently motivated to complete the exercise at their current level of ability?
Cognitive: Does the athlete understand the expectation for performance of the squat? Are we certain it is clear for them?
Our goal for each athlete, strictly from the physical perspective, is safe and effective performance of each exercise or movement pattern before adding variety. Building a foundation of strength, stability, and motor planning can have restorative and preventative benefits and enhance quality of life at any age.
Eric Chessen, M.S. is the Founder of Autism Fitness. An Exercise Physiologist with an extensive background in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Eric has coached successful fitness and adapted PE programs for the neurodiverse population over 18 years. Eric is the creator of the Autism Fitness™ Certification and PAC Profile™ Method. He is also Director of Neuroadaptive Programming for Inclusive Fitness. He resides in Charlotte, NC. Go to AutismFitness.com for more information.