Social interaction is one of the most difficult challenges for individuals with autism, as making friends with peers can be an anxiety-provoking ordeal. In my experience, fitness can be used as a gateway towards better social awareness and interaction between young people with autism and peers.
Individuals with Autism and Peers can Grow Closer through Fitness
When we ran the Get FRESH research program last year, adolescents and teens with autism were paired with neurotypical peers. The results were impressive on both sides, with our participants on the autism spectrum gaining social opportunities and our peer mentors learning about and appreciating the autism spectrum. This is how real awareness is created.
Teens with Autism and Peers in the Right Environment
Part of the problem with sports-based activities is that the competitive nature often fails to introduce a cooperative model. Winning also takes precedence over enjoying the activity. Finally, most of my athletes with autism have difficulty with the concepts of winning, losing, and the specific rules of sports. Fitness activities that connect young people with autism and peers with one goal or objective are far more successful.
Positive social interaction includes understanding, cooperation, and enjoyment of the activity or subject matter. When we are able to introduce socialization through exercise and play, it can minimize the awkwardness or anxiety of a social situation for individuals with autism. By having a movement objective (medicine ball throws or carrying a huge rope across the gym), athletes with autism will have a natural situation for interaction with peers.
Young People with Autism and peers Learning about Each other
As I mention in the video above, talking about autism or handing out a pamphlet is far less effective than an inclusion model. Using fitness activities including obstacle courses, circuit stations, and non-competitive games, instructors, PE, and Fitness Professionals can create an environment that enhances physical health and social skills for individuals with autism and peer friends.