When we see an athlete with ASD performing some-or-other exercise on social media, it’s hard not to “like,” “love,” or even “OMG!+ 12 emojis” the post. And certainly there’s reason to celebrate given the challenges of providing fitness programs to special needs population. The issue that often arises is the appropriateness of the exercise as it is being performed; an exercise is not necessarily the exercise.

In our Autism Fitness Certification Level 1 course, we refer to the practice of “Knowing what You’re Looking @.” Appreciating the purpose behind an exercise leads us to coaching at an appropriate level of progression or regression for each athlete.

Autism Fitness Know What You're Looking @

It isn’t the case that the athlete will get injured from performing a few errant reps of a squat or press, but the idea, the reason behind each exercise is to decrease compensation patterns and increase strength, stability, and motor planning. Ultimately, our exercises is only as good as it is performed. An athlete who can repeatedly perform that squat or press with independent control is far more likely to generalize that skill beyond the gym, home, or wherever exercise is being coached.

Compensatory movement patterns, from gait abnormalities to strength deficits are endemic among the ASD population. Our athletes are most often starting out at a physical ability level below a neurotypical peer of the same age. While the same exercises may apply, the level to which they are introduced and taught will be different.

In the Certification Level 2 course we spend a wonderfully awful amount of time reviewing videos of our athletes performing the Autism Fitness 15 exercises; crawls, squats, presses, band rows, farmers walks, etc. We can easily spend a half-hour analyzing a single exercise. There’s a wealth of information in watching how our athletes squat, press, and pull.

Where are their feet?

Do they lose ground contact? 

How about stability at the trunk? 

Some minor adjustments can mean the difference between the exercise having its intended outcome and the same irksome compensation taking over…again. The exercise itself isn’t magic. It has zero ability to “perform itself right,” that’s up to us as coaches and facilitators of high quality fitness and adapted PE programming. And it is not, not a game of perfection, rather consistently better performance over time.


By knowing where to start depending on the athlete’s baseline.

At what level of challenge will this athlete be most successful with this exercise? 

Success with an exercise has more than one condition. Considering “success” from the PAC Profile approach, an athlete is successful with an exercise when;

Physically: They can perform the movement safely and effectively with as much control and stability as current skills allow.

Adaptive: The athlete is significantly motivated to the point of completing the exercise to the best of current physical ability.

Cognitively: The athlete understands, to the best of ability, how to perform the exercise

Success in this case means we can start teaching the exercise at this level of challenge. The goal, of course, is to continue developing the skill (in one, two, or all 3 areas of ability as needed) and doing so with minimal compromise to the movement pattern.

The fundamental differences between exercises that prove beneficial, and those that are less so, can be broken into two segments; exercise selection and level of progression/regression. Regardless of the benevolence of our intent, If we do not have a working understanding of how an exercise should be performed and what compensatory movements are occurring, it will be difficult to coach  to the needs of the athlete.

Individualized programming is less about having a “different” exercise for each person as it is having the right progression or regression of the exercises we know have a high carryover to activities of daily living. None of these are surprises. They are basic motor patterns (steps, crawls, level change) and strength exercises (squats, carries, presses, pulls).

Our Autism Fitness Certified Pros become movement detectives, seeking out clues to help their athletes perform each exercise to the best of current ability. Parents, family members, and professionals involved with these athletes notice the difference.

The attention to detail is not an over-reaction, instead it is the defining characteristic of intentional coaching with extraordinary outcomes. Our coaches know when the “emperor” is truly moving well.