The other day I had the opportunity to sit down and explain myself before a pair of school administrators. The program is a highly respected (and deserving of that) school for students with autism here on Long Island. I made the case, hopefully in a persuasive enough manner, that physical fitness ties in to EVERYTHING related to optimal functioning. We have a tendency to compartmentalize different areas of ability, particularly in discussing academics. Everything human (physical, psychological, biological) is related. To what degree the effect/affect occurs varies widely.
There still seems to be a thought process that equates the need for exercise and physical activity only with those students who are overweight. The assumption is purely based on cosmetic reasoning. Because culturally we are taught (mostly by magazines and media) that fitness is primarily an aesthetic pursuit, it would follow that a student with autism who is not overweight would not benefit as much from a fitness program. The aesthetic (how good you look) perception of fitness robs the student of a proper Adaptive PE program because “He/She is skinny so he/she must be healthy.” We know, meaning that enough good research studies and anecdotal evidence in physiology, psychology, endocrinology, etc. make the opposite highly unlikely, that regular physical activity can provide significant benefits for all populations, the ASD community included.
Without pouring through stacks of studies, take the plank walk of assumption and believe that fitness programs can enhance cognitive, self-regulatory, and social functioning, in addition to, of course, improving physical ability. The asterisk (*) here is that programs must be:
3) Maintained and Progressed over time
Given these 3 conditions are met, it is certainly possible to increase Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive skills, very specific ones, if the right programming is in place and fitness/PE is considered and utilized as more of a “life skill” program than something for students who “need to lose weight.” So if we consider that all things academic and life-skill are inter-related, and that fitness/physical education is also an important component in academic and life-skill progress for the autism population, we can begin to make better choices about developing fitness programs and using them as a gateway towards improved functioning in other areas.