“Can we just start with bodyweight? I don’t know if we need equipment yet…”
This is a common sentiment from parents and professionals running virtual programs for children, teens, and adults with autism and special needs.
Granted, we usually want as low investment as possible in a program, particularly if it is something new and uncertain. The problem is that a “bodyweight” only or equipment-free fitness/adapted PE program significantly limits what most of our autism and neurodiverse population can do.
But there are SO many bodyweight and callisthenic exercises! There are push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, air squats, lunges…Absolutely. There is no denying that a world of no-equipment exercise exists. But we have to put that up to the lens of purposes and practicality for our athletes.
In our Autism Fitness programming, many of the above exercises are excluded from our primary exercise programming. It’s not that they are necessarily “bad” exercises, but we find that in a substantial amount of cases there are contraindications and underlying deficits in performing these movements safely and successfully.
Push-ups and jumping jacks are easy go-to’s for virtual programs. All you need is the floor. Operating on the presumption that simply proscribing the exercise will enable the athlete to be competent with it is simply preposterous. Consider the pre-requisite skills needed for both these exercises. With push-ups, we regularly see loss of trunk stability, evidenced by arching the back and going into lumbar extension. With jumping jacks, landing tends to be hard without dispersing force across the floor.
Both of these exercises share the trait of being simple, but not easy (to borrow from Dan John). Their simplicity of implementation should not be confused with simplicity of performance. These are two different things. Air squats share a similar issue. Almost every Autism Fitness teen I’ve ever assessed will simply bend their knees (as though starting a little jig) when I demonstrate a squat. That is unless they have a visual/spacial cue in the form of a box or stand to squat on. The box is almost universally necessary, at least when first teaching the squat, due to both physical and kinesthetic awareness issues.
That “equipment free” is easier or simplifies a program for individuals with ASD misses the reality that equipment provides us with the means to modify or regress just about every exercise. The addition of just a resistance band and a 4lb Sandbell gives us (and our in-home program facilitator) exponentially more exercise choices that will benefit the athlete.
With the addition of a 2lb Dynamax ball, a resistance band, and a Sandbell, we can add overhead walks, presses, rows, push, overhead, and scoop throws to our virtual fitness programs. There is also a greater amount of progressions and, more importantly, regressions that can be performed with these 3 pieces of equipment. Bodyweight seems like the path of least resistance, but it actually becomes more restrictive in what we can do with our athletes virtually.
Consider also how much prompting (whether physical or gestural) plays a factor in successful programming. When coaching virtually, we have far less opportunities to provide these nuanced yet important supports. For personal space and demonstrating readiness, having a circle marker can make a world of difference.
Fitness programming is a long-term investment. The addition of a few pieces of equipment can make a critical difference in the quality and quantity of exercise options, not for the sheer sake of variety, but for providing our special need students/athletes with a viable means for performing the exercises to best of ability. It is, as often the case, the difference between “getting through” a session and really building physical skills. Jumping around a lot is not building a skill. Performing a push-up or air squat with a loss of stability and poor posture is not building a skill. There is a difference between an expenditure of energy and a well-executed fitness/PE program.
The right equipment, and not much of it, can make a profound difference in virtual programs for the autism and special needs populations. Autism Fitness offers two packages through our partners at Perform Better, each has equipment that can be used with individuals of virtually any age or ability level.AF Equipment Package