It’s 2002 and I’m sitting in a graduate class on principles of behavior analysis. Professor F. is lecturing on token economies and how reliable motivation can result from consistent delivery of a reinforcer. He talks about a theoretical student with autism and says, and I remember this clearly,

“So she performs the task correctly and then we give her an M&M. She keeps doing it correctly and we keep delivering M&Ms. Eventually we’ll have someone get her on the treadmill.”

Yeah. I’m going to pause so that can sink in.

Granted the practices of ABA has made significant progress since then, however we are reaching a point where there is either a significant shift in the way we approach life skills for the autism population or we will continue in having a costly (both in time and resources) and reactive model.

To briefly bring current events into the discussion, it has been widely suggested that more physically active members of society have increased immunity against COVID-19. Given the challenges that many individuals with ASD have with respect to health and hygiene (and tolerance of wearing a mask), it would follow that we provide them with every possible option for optimal health. This would include nutrition, sleep, and physical activity in the top 3.

This recent article in Spectrum News¬†discusses the ongoing issue of obesity in the ASD population. As I’ve noted on, likely narrowing in on several hundred occasions between speaking and articles, there needs to be a determined and dramatic shift in how we approach quality of life issues for the ASD population.

Rather than discuss the theoretical, or highlight the importance of regular physical activity for this population, let’s consider how fitness and healthy living can be addressed at different stages of life for the ASD population. Let’s pretend that the shift actually occurs on a wide scale and fitness is both considered and practice as a foundation of life skills for all individuals.

2-5 Years: Emphasis on basic motor functioning/planning. Using prepositions, level change, and locomotion (gait and crawling patterns).

6-12 Years: Focus on stability through movement, sequencing of activities, strength development.

12-Early Adulthood: Generalization of strength, stability, and motor planning into slightly wider (where appropriate) range of exercises and activities. Broadened scope of outdoor or leisure activities (hiking, biking, swimming, etc.)

Adulthood: Continuation of development and maintenance of strength and stability skills. For older adults, maintenance of strength to prevent falling injuries.

Based on a standard of practice and valid curricula, programming can be introduced and facilitated in multiple environments from homes, to schools (in the re-introduction of a functioning, outcomes based Adapted PE system in the US), to gyms, and therapeutic clinics (ABA, OT/PT).

The Spectrum News article is yet another attempt at focusing in on an issue that has no small ramifications for the ASD population. We do not have to reinvent physical fitness. We have to take a systemic approach to implementing quality of life measures that are already proven effective. When parents, caregivers, educators, therapists, and other professionals begin prioritizing fitness and healthy living on a lifetime continuum, we will come closer to the support our ASD population deserves.

-EC