I) Overview: It is evident that the current social and educational climate in the U.S. is not conducive to the optimal development of health and wellness for children, adolescents, teenagers, and young adults on the autism spectrum. Physical fitness modalities currently in place often do not serve the needs of their students/clients, resulting in a host of physiological difficulties ranging from deficits in kinesthetic awareness to poor social initiation skills. Through goal-directed fitness programs focusing on long-term development strategies, young individuals are provided with the foundations of a wellness lifestyle. Wellness lifestyles transcend physical abilities, having beneficial impact on all areas of development including self-efficacy, self-esteem, cognitive processing, emotional regulation, and socialization.
II) Choosing the Right Program: Since physical fitness is not commonly a high-priority for either homes or educational programs, it is often necessary to define fitness in a way that is meaningful and properly highlights the vital role of exercise in daily life. Fitness is the ability to perform the everyday movements required for independent mastery of the environment. Fitness is our ability to engage in novel physical activities, work, and play in as safe and efficient a manner possible. Fitness programs should focus on developing basic gross motor patterning through exercise activities, and building upon those skills to increase physical functional capacities (via strength, coordination, balance, endurance, and proprioception ). Of significant importance is the concept of “Generalization,” or being able to perform the proper movement pattern in a variety of different environments and situations. While sports programs may provide movement opportunities and the potential for socialization, the movements performed in sports are highly specialized, and do not generalize beyond that particular setting. Fitness programs can and should focus on developing a foundation of movement skills that can enhance both life and athletic abilities.
III) The Methodologies: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has been successfully integrated into many educational and vocational programs due to its efficacy in teaching skills step-by-step with mastery of pre-requisite skills occurring prior to the introduction of more complex skills. Mirroring this approach, exercise should be introduced in a scheme that is incremental and goal-oriented in nature. The behavioral constructs of motivation and reinforcement are equally important, as many individuals with autism find movement aversive. Developing fitness skills requires consideration of all basic motor patterns; squatting, pushing, pulling, rotation, and locomotion. Through exploring and understanding these patterns effective and fun fitness programs can be developed.
IV) Autism Fitness: Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS, is the Founder of Autism Fitness, dedicated to bringing fitness and wellness into the lives of children on the autism spectrum and those with related special needs. In addition to working in 1-to-1 and group settings with his athletes, Eric focuses on developing training and continuing education programs for parents, educators, and related professionals with the goal of providing fitness for every child on the autism spectrum. In addition to the DVD, Beyond Boundaries: Fitness for the Young Autism Population, Eric provides seminars and workshops designed to provide attendees with an understanding of BBFit concepts and methodology, and the ability to implement exercise programs in the home, school, or fitness facility.
V) What Can I expect to Learn?
– Overview of exercise and the implications for physiological, cognitive, and emotional optimization
– Overview of the behavioral aspects of autism and how ABA can be applied to fitness programs
– Gross motor movement analysis
– Planning and goal-setting for fitness programs
– Implementation of fitness programs
– Exercise selection and program design
– Developing new/novel movements
– Long-Term Development strategies
VI) The Austin Core Team Development Initiative
The purpose of the ACTD is to create a base for autism fitness in Austin, TX. Parents, Special Needs Educators, and related service providers will have the opportunity to learn how including fitness programs in the home or learning environment can enhance optimal development in a variety of areas as well as practical methods for developing individual- and group centered-programs. Fitness Professionals, already with backgrounds in exercise science and implementation of youth fitness programs will be provided with training that builds upon their existing skill and knowledge. The workshop will focus on the foundations of movement, deficits common to the autism spectrum, remedial to advanced exercise progressions and program designs, behavior management, and can also include developing a business serving the ASD population.
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