Moving the Goalpost; In-session Assessment

Sure, we’ve got our PAC Profile going strong and we know the current prompt level for overhead and push throws, we know that Nico is motivated (to a space-reaching degree) to do hurdle steps, and that for at least three of the warm-up exercises today we can step back and simply provide a verbal cue; “Hurdle steps starting at the purple cones,” or “Do eight Sandbell slams with the yellow Sandbell.” We’ve got our physical, adaptive, and cognitive baselines down. But what happens when, in the typical atypical session, we need to shift?

The challenge in providing effective fitness and adapted Physical Education programs for the autism population is actually a function of there being multiple challenges.

We’re always gauging physical, adaptive, and cognitive skills and within a session they can change depending on what the athlete is experiencing. Some sessions we may have a highly motivated athlete who wants to do “seventeen squats” in a row when we note that technical form starts breaking down at repetition six. On the opposite side, we might have an athlete capable of performing ten squats to slightly below parallel, but he’s having a highly anxious episode at repetition four.

Having a hierarchy of importance is critical. In Autism Fitness programming, we use the following as a guide:

Safety (athlete and instructor) –> Cooperation –> Improved Performance –> Mastery –> Autonomy & Choice

If we’re just talking physical functioning, meaning our athlete is safe, on-task, and sufficiently motivated, it is often the case that the first few repetitions of an exercise, or even the first few sets, might require more prompting, even if an athlete has already mastered that exercise.

We see this often with overhead exercises, notably the overhead band walk during warm-ups and the overhead Sandbell press during the strength/stability phase of a session. Our athletes start out holding the band up overhead without full extension, maybe at 2/3rds the whole way up. To get them to full overhead position, we model our arms overhead while facing them. Their arms go up, all is well.

It’s common for an athlete to need this model prompt the first one or two sets and then we are able to fade it back to no prompt. They just needed a reminder of where their hands were in space (don’t we all?) Despite the fact that we know an athlete can perform the overhead walk or press independently, on occasion they may need a refresher prompt (again, don’t we all?)

Adaptive and cognitive skills, the former more often, are subject to the nuances of “how the day is going.” An athlete who is having a stressed, high anxiety day, or (because) is thrown off schedule, may need a bigger gap between exercise activities and break/reinforcer time. They may also need more structure in staying on-task with an exercise. This often occurs in the very beginning or towards the end of a session.

Keeping contingencies (our if/then’s) in place and maintaining the structure of the session is integral to success in the short- and long-term, though we have to have moderate flexibility and recognize that

  1. Our athletes with autism are human beings and
  2. Our human being athletes will have “off” days

The art and science of coaching requires an understanding of what will support our athlete and when it should be implemented. This includes progressions, positive behavior support, counting repetitions, and providing a break or access to preferred activities. The better we know our athletes, the greater predictability we have about the what/when.

Regardless of whether we’re singling out physical, adaptive, or cognitive functioning or looking at all three, there is always the known, current level of ability, the short-term goal, and the “where are we right now.” Being present in the situation, and having the appropriate training to coach effectively, are the determining factors for success.