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Autism Sports Programs


I have to be honest and say that I have not had much luck in finding autism specific sports programs in my area. In fact, if you were to Google right now “autism sports programs near me” I bet I know what would pop up. Before you read any further, Google that right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

 

If I’m right in my guess, you owe me 10 push-ups. If I’m wrong, contact me and I’ll send you a 20% promo code off any of my trainings. But here is what I’m guessing popped up.

“Adaptive Fitness” or “Adaptive Sports Program”. Or something similar that catered to individuals with physical disabilities or intellectual disabilities. Am I right? Get down and give me 10. Am I wrong? Go ahead and message me and I’ll shoot that promo code right over to you.

 

Before I rant, please understand this. I am NOT anti-adaptive fitness for people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities! I’m extremely pro fitness for all and I wish there were adaptive sports and fitness programs for every sport and fitness program. And anyone delivering this service is the most awesomest of the awesomest and should get a free coffee from their favorite coffee shop once a month. Maybe once a week.

 

Adaptive fitness is adapting a workout or sport to fit the need of a person struggling on some level with that workout or sport in the standard way. And there are some AMAZING programs out there just for this reason!

 

What I don’t see as much is adaptive fitness programs for people on the autism spectrum. Or for that matter, people that are on the neurodiverse spectrum (ND). Another broad term; neurodiverse. A blanket word that covers anyone on the autism spectrum, with sensory processing disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s, and many others to be named. Anyone that falls into this category may or may not need adapted sports and fitness at all but when it comes to the kids on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing disorder, they more often need some help in this area on some level.

 

So, what is it about the kids on the autism spectrum and with sensory processing disorder that makes fitness, movement, or sports such a challenge at times? It’s the sensory piece. Understanding that kids and adults that fall under ASD and SPD have difficulty processing and responding to sensory input.  This is important to understand for soooooo many reasons and especially when it comes to physical activity. This makes understanding sensory processing crucial to any adaptive ND program to be successful more than just using a behavior based approach.

 

Let me be crystal clear. Autism and sensory processing disorder are two completely different neruodiversities. But here is what they share. Kids/adults on the autism spectrum struggle with sensory processing. Some might even say they have sensory processing disorder. However, for those with sensory processing disorder, it does not mean they are on the autism spectrum. But nevertheless, they both struggle with sensory processing enough to affect their lives significantly. I’ve had adults on the spectrum tell me they do not struggle with sensory processing at all. I am 100% going to believe them. But if you are working with anyone on the autism spectrum, it is a safe bet to assume they will have sensory struggles on some level. In fact, if I’m working with anybody under that huge neurodiverse umbrella, it is completely worth it to look at how they process and respond to sensory input. This is the key factor for any program catering to the neurodiverse to at least have a look at. I believe it is crucial for any of these programs to, at the very minimum, understand how a person might be affected processing sensory input and how they respond to that input.

 

Why does this matter for an autism sports or fitness program? It matters for two very important reasons.

1.     Behavior

2.     Function

When I say behavior, people generally think of “bad” behavior or misbehaving. That’s not what I necessarily mean. If you are doing sports/fitness with clients with ND, a challenge that you will most likely face is them completing tasks the way you ask. Sometimes that’s due to being off task, not understanding what your expectations are, or having difficulty communicating their wants and needs. This can sometimes be seen as “not listening” or “struggling with following directions”. Whatever the case may be, behavior of your client is something a trainer, coach, educator, whomever is working with this person is something they will have to deal with. Especially if you’re working with kids!

 

Understanding why a kid ( I say kid a lot because I work mostly with kids) is behaving the way they are behaving is incredibly beneficial to the instructor and more so the client. Look at it this way. If you ask a client to do something and they don’t do it most people’s first inclination is that the client made a choice. If you ask a kid to pick up a med ball and they run through the gym into the corner, what would your reaction be? Most people it would be to re-direct and use what skills they have in their tool belt to get that kid back to the activity that was chosen for them.

 

What if there was a kid in a wheelchair and you asked them to get up some steps and they did not? Would you re-direct them? Would you hold them accountable? Probably not. You would find a way to modify what you’re asking them and accommodate them to fit their need. Meaning provide a ramp or find another way around. Either way your approach is waaaaaay different!

 

Let’s go back to the med ball kid. You asked him/her to pick up the med ball and they didn’t. They ran. What if in that moment they could not deal with sensory input in the room or how their skin felt at that moment? Or they didn’t know how to motor plan what you asked them to do? Any of these things could put a person in fight, flight, or freeze. Meaning they cannot complete that task in that moment. Their wheelchair could be on the inside and we just can’t see it. How would your approach be if you could see their difficulty? If you understood? Automatically your demeanor is different. You have more patience, and you would give that client a bit more grace to complete the action you’re asking. Understanding someone is sometimes enough and can be the difference between a client engaging and having a meaningful and productive session, and not. I’m not saying to not re-direct the kid and/or hold them accountable. I’m saying to consider that the client CAN’T do what you asked in the moment. Not that they WON’T.

 

The second is function. This is where I mean the physical act of doing things. How we process and respond to sensory input can influence how we move. More specifically our posture, our coordination, and our motor planning. Why does this matter? Well, it matters because having difficulty with posture, coordination, and/or motor planning can make doing many basic activities difficult. You know those energy bars that characters have in video games? Well, we all have those invisibly floating over our heads. Things that deplete our energy bars are physical activity, mental activity, social interaction, emotional regulation, and many other things. By the time your ND client arrives to you they could already show up with a depleted energy bar. So, their ability to attend and complete tasks is affected. Again, let’s return to the med ball kid. We ask them to pick up the med ball and do some slams, but they’ve held it together just to get in the door, do the warmup, and listen to directions because it took all their posture, coordination, and motor planning just to get that far. They could be starting with a half filled energy bar. Meaning they’re ability to attend and complete those med ball slams will be shortened.

 

We need to understand that sensory processing difficulties will affect one’s behavior and how they physically do things. Then we can a different approach and be even more specific about the activities we choose.

 

There are already dozens of autism specific athletic programs that are popping up all over the country and a few well established one’s like Autism Fitness by Eric Chessen (https://www.autismfitness.com/) and Exercise Connection by David Geslak (https://exerciseconnection.com/). Both are excellent programs steeped in brain development, autism research, exercise science, kinesiology, and other evidence-based practices. I highly recommend checking out these programs for resources and classes especially if they are in your area. In fact, I’d recommend checking out any program that is catering to the neurodiverse because they will have more insight in how to work with that population more than just an overall “adaptive fitness” program. I just wish there were more programs that are neurodiverse specific in communities to help this rising population with to access to athletics.

 

If you are a fitness professional, OT, PT, coach, PE teacher, parent, or anyone looking to either start or are already running an adaptive program catered to the neurodiverse then I highly suggest you look deeper into sensory processing and the affect it plays in the neurodiverse population. Below is a list of trainings based in sensory and related strategies.

 

 

Sensory Fitness LLC

Sensory Fitness Coach Certification

*(Yes, I offer my own training of course. This blog post is intended to be informational and not to peddle my own stuff but I have to say it is an awesome training and different than everybody else’s. However, there are plenty of other pretty awesome training sites out there so have a look and choose which fits your situation best. But don’t forget about our bet and your 20% discount we talked about in the beginning. Do I sound like a good salesman? I’m not sure that’s a good thing but people tell me I must be a better salesman. So, check out my stuff because it’s good).

 

Integrated Learning Systems

Various trainings

 

Sensational Brain

Various trainings

 

Summit Education

Various trainings

 

Autism Fitness

 

Exercise Connection

 

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