Can’t Versus Won’t: Fitness and Motivation

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Some of my Autism Fitness athletes have a tendency to wait a couple seconds before performing the activity-in-question. Sometimes it is a processing delay, and, on occasion (see also; Regularly), it is because the exercise/activity is not inherently reinforcing enough for them to immediately invest their effort into it.  There is also the occasion where the athlete will perform a not-so-outstanding variation of the activity-in-question (Target Task). Sometimes (See also; often), an instructor will tell me; “Oh, he/she can’t do that.”

Can’t or Won’t?

Suppose I am introducing a star jump for the first time. I say something like “Bruno, do a star jump.” I demonstrate it once or not at all. Bruno stands there. Or walks away. Or, remarkably, does some odd variation of the star jump. I am suffering from an assumption bias here. Couple things:

Thing 1) I cannot assume that Bruno is going to have a preexisting understanding of what a star jump is or how to perform one.

Thing 2) I cannot assume that Bruno is going to be able to perform the star jump correctly by my single demonstration. He may not have been paying attention. He may be more of a kinesthetic learner with respect to this movement. He may need to see it several times before he will attempt it on his own.

Thing 3) He may not be sufficiently motivated to perform the star jump.

When developing fitness programs for the autism population (or any population but since I own a company called “Autism Fitness” and hardly anybody else really writes about this stuff I’ll keep it to those with ASD), we have to consider Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive abilities. Setting up an environment for success requires some fitness detective work. CAN Bruno perform a star jump? What about a modified/regressed version? What does his best possible right now star jump look like? Is Bruno motivated enough to perform the star jump? I don’t know. Initially. But I can find out.

Using one of our favorite ABA practices, the Premack Principle, we can tie a new/novel/non-preferred stimuli (The Star Jump), with a known reinforcer (something the indivdual already enjoys). Usually with my athletes it is simply taking a break from the target tasks and walking around, or listening to music, or even throwing the medicine ball back and forth.

This scenario may sound something like:

Bruno, do a star jump and then you can listen to Warrant’s Greatest Hits” (I demonstrate the star jump)

*Bruno stands there. I demonstrate it again and he does a very rote imitation of said star jump*

Nice getting your arms out on that star jump, Bruno. You can listen to Warrant for two minutes

In this scenario, Bruno could do a variation of the star jump, he just needed an extra demo. He was sufficiently motivated to perform the activity. After all, c’mon, Warrant.   *For the record, no athlete I’ve ever coached has ever had listening to Warrant as a reinforcer.

Point: The physical ability to perform a movement/exercise and the adaptive quality of being motivated to perform it are two different issues. Figuring out the missing piece in these situations is a proactive measure against frustration, and allows us to provide high quality physical education. If we want to do that sort of thing.

Live Inspired,



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