I’ve received a few questions this week about specific exercises for different age ranges on the autism spectrum. Surprisingly, age says little about skill.
I have 10-year-old Mary, who can do frog hops, squats, and overhead carries with a Sandbell. Then there are my 17-year old athletes who have difficulty performing a single squat properly. Clearly the physical abilities vary and are not dependent on age. In fact, many of my older athletes with autism have more movement deficits than the younger ones. I attribute this mostly to them having more years of sedentary living without engaging in much physical play or appropriate physical education programming. The skills that exist from an early age begin to disappear when not used, and those skills that are in deficit never have an opportunity for correction and development.
The above is only the physical aspect. Individuals with autism will also vary in their adaptive/behavioral and cognitive abilities as well. It is quite impossible to develop a sensible fitness program by only knowing the age of the participant(s). What if he/she cannot perform the movements and gets frustrated easily? What if he/she does not associate the instruction “Pick up the medicine ball” with the action of picking up the ball. These questions are exactly why I developed the PAC Profile, because there is no way to create an effective fitness or adapted physical education program for “high-school age individuals with autism.” Even “high” or “low functioning” gives little indication as to what activities are appropriate, how much behavioral support is needed, and how the individual(s) learn best.
So there are really 3 factors in creating a good fitness program for individuals with autism (Physical, Adaptive, Cognitive), and age is not one of them. Understanding the 3 skill sets will lead to better planning and faster success for your athletes with autism (if you move on a regular basis, explore, play, and enhance skills, you are an athlete). We refer to autism as a “spectrum disorder” because there are such differences between individuals. Certainly some commonalities exist, but in my experience simply knowing that a person with autism is 14 years old does not prepare me much for anything, other than comparing them with neurotypical peers.
Program-wise, all of my Autism Fitness athletes are working on the same skills, but at different levels of challenge (a basic squat versus a squat and jump with a Sandbell, for example), with different behavioral support, and different teaching (visual and full-on physical prompting). We’re all human and it makes sense to get stronger, faster, more powerful and stable. The task then becomes choosing the right exercises and activities.