A beautiful run on this early spring day, in Lakes Park in Fort Myers. Photo courtesy of Charly Caldwell II
It is universally accepted that regular physical activity not only helps us stray fit and healthy, it can also increase self-esteem, develop social skills and improve mental health and general well-being.
However, most of us experience those benefits on a homogeneous level.
It wasn’t until I had the honor of working with an autistic adult that I began to appreciate the barriers and limitations people with autism face.
Research shows that people with autism are less likely than to participate in sport or physical activity due to factors related to the condition, including heightened fear and anxiety in social situations, difficulty understanding body language and sensory challenges.
If someone on the autism spectrum responds negatively to a sporting or physical activity it can be perceived as a behavioral issue when this is in fact, not the case.
What one person may perceive as a behavioral problem may simply be a reaction to coping with a sensory sensitivity.
For example, persons with autism may refuse to enter the gym because the music volume is more than they can cope with, or they may appear uncooperative because they are unable to tolerate a hands-on approach to coaching.
This certainly doesn’t make them behavior problems.
In my years of coaching, I’ve encountered non-autistic people who refuse to wear their team bibs because they don’t like the way the fabric feels.
They were simply more able to communicate this discomfort so it more easily accepted.
There are some general strategies that can be implemented to help autistic people feel included in physical activity.
However, it is important to remember that autism affects different people in different ways and to varying degrees, so these strategies should be taken only as a general guide:
Autistic people often find it difficult to follow group instructions, so it may help to give them instructions individually.
Break up directions into small chunks and, wherever possible, support these with pictures, gestures or written cues. Visual timetables can be useful to show the order of events in a team activity or a small group circuit workout.
For example, when asking questions, speak slowly and clearly and give the person plenty of time to process what you are saying before expecting a response.
Evaluate the environment and your practice to ensure that it will not present too many difficulties for people with sensory sensitivities.
Consider sound, volume, lights and any other stimuli.
Be aware that some people may have difficulties with balance and coordination, which makes some activities difficult for them.
Help them by breaking the activity down into smaller steps and allowing time to practice.
The unique challenges of training and coaching people with autism should be embraced.
Without question, we can all learn a lot from our autistic athletes.
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