Given the current and continuing COVID pandemic in most of the world, many professionals (both organizations and independent trainers) have turned to virtual training for their members. While this presents a novel approach to the inability to coach in person, it presents numerous important considerations for neurotypical and even more for autism and special needs population.

Using Zoom sessions for our athletes with autism can provide ongoing access to fitness activities. As with all programming for those with ASD, we have to be vigilant of generalizations and, in fact, the concept of generalization as it relates to movement skills. Before examining the pros and challenges of virtual coaching, it must first be established that everyone involved (coach, parent/caregiver) has to be in full collaborative mode.

*I had initially titled this article ‘Pros and Cons’ until, halfway through I recognized that it is more an examination of pros and challenges.

I will say that, in hindsight, many of the practices I’ve used with my Autism Fitness athletes over the past few years have been validated during the last few months. The exercises and activities that we’ve spent the most time practicing and addressing are the same ones that have “stuck,” and continue to benefit the athlete. That news isn’t surprising, but important nonetheless. It underscores the importance of holding true to a movement hierarchy, that not all exercises are created equal an those that will have the greatest impact on activities of daily living (ADLs) should be made priority in a program.

With that, here are the pros and cons of virtual training for the ASD and special needs populations. Note that all of these examples come with the label of “depending on…” as environments and situations will ultimately dictate the relative success of a program.

Challenges

  • Maintaining Stimulus Control: We know that many of our athletes have difficulty attending to directions in person. When we are coaching virtually, it is easy for the athlete to get distracted. There are competing variables, our voice may cut out, the athlete may not be following our mirror/gestural prompts and may miss nuanced gestural cues.
  • Limited Ability to Prompt/Fade: An exercise is only as good/beneficial as it is performed, hence our focus/benevolent obsession with progressions and regressions for each exercise in the Autism Fitness 15. Virtual coaching eliminates our ability to provide physical prompts, and we don’t want to overload our athletes with verbal directions, so increasing instructions is a no-go.
  • Uneven Instructions:¬†Unless we are, and even when discussing athletes who are independent with an exercise, there is likely someone (a parent or caregiver) facilitating the session in person for the athlete. If the coach and facilitator are not in synchronicity, different, and potentially¬† contradictory directions might be provided. This can be confusing and frustrating for the athlete (and for everyone else involved)
  • Spacial and Equipment Limitations: Space constraints are not only about the dimensions of a room. It’s about the fact that I can’t follow you around that room. In order for the athlete to follow both verbal and visual directions, they have to be within proximity to the screen and speakers. Equipment is another factor in what can and cannot be done. I was about to type “I’m all for DIY” but I’m not. Some equipment is just better off purchased. Certain objects can be replicated, but I haven’t seen a homemade medicine ball yet that I trust.

Pros

Opportunities for Generalization: One of the exciting aspects of virtual fitness training for the ASD population is finding out which skills have “stuck with” the athlete. Beyond movement skills, we can also observe generalization of language (productive and receptive), and which exercises have maintained “preferred” status.

Collaboration between Parents/Caregivers and Coaches: While I’ve spent years reminding people that nobody likes doing anything that starts with “You have to…” necessity does give way to participation. A parent may have spent months or years as a grateful onlooker for fitness sessions. Now it’s time to wear the fabled “coach’s polo shirt,” if only for a few months. This time of collaboration is a gift and an opportunity for a coach to educate parents and caretakers to “see what I’m seeing.” This can work both ways. Our Certified Pro parents are teaching not only other parents, but other instructors as well.

Getting More Out of Less: One day (long time from now), my physical body will no longer exist and someone will read one of my articles, eBooks, interviews and really, really get that our athletes benefit more from doing fewer overall exercises. So there’s limited equipment and space? Focus on 3-4 exercises done to best possible ability. This, by the way, is how after 3 years one of my athletes mastered scoop throws. Mass trials and an emphasis on proper form pays in dividends.

Maintenance:¬†It’s likely the case that emerging exercise skills are not going to flourish or become mastered to independent during quarantine training (though I’m happy to be proven incorrect anytime on this). But we can keep skills in maintenance, at their current level of performance, until we can once again get to an in-person coaching situation. This is all the more reason for coaches/instructors and parents/caregivers to be in a collaboration phase right now. I’m guessing that a lot of effort, care, and planning went into your programs. Keep what skills can be kept and act in the short term to achieve the long view goals.

As always with fitness for those with autism, we have to (<– there’s that “have to” again) plan in accordance with physical, adaptive, and cognitive abilities, meet our athletes where they are at, and take a short-and-often approach to including fitness into their lives.

-EC