Ask The Experts: How to Create Exercise Programs for the ASD Population

Often times the two biggest obstacles in introducing fitness to individuals on the spectrum is trying to understand where the individual is from physical and cognitive skill level and selecting the appropriate activity for that individual. I can put together the greatest series of hopping exercises, but if my athlete with autism cannot yet tolerate standing on two spot markers and making eye contact with me, this activity may be very frustrating to them. A lot of gross motor development relies upon exploratory activities, including climbing, jumping, running, and variations of bending and squatting. When these behaviors do not emerge in childhood, there is an increased risk of muscular imbalances, low muscle tone and lack of initiative to engage in free play or movement activities. The struggles in getting children involved in physical activity can be because many families live a sedentary lifestyles, have poor nutrition and few opportunities to participate in vigorous fitness activities.

I often structure my fitness programs as “structured learning for chaotic situations.” Play is chaotic; it is random, fun and an essential part of the human experience. Play is also a skill that can be taught using exercise as its components. For example, I have been working with “Frankie” for about six years now. We have focused on increasing both his tolerance of physical activity and performing multiple steps of an activity, such as picking up a ball, carrying it overhead and then throwing it. These are skills that may or may not be easily taught, but have a great role as “foundational” movement and play skills. During breaks from specific activities, Frankie will now pick up a SandBell (a rubber disc filled with sand) and throw it around, or jump over the hurdles. He is beginning to incorporate movement into non-structured activities. The generalization component is enormously important.

Generalization is the ability to perform a specific skill in a variety of situations. This is one of the limitations of sports activities. A sport, while certainly beneficial for a variety of physical, social and cognitive processes, includes a very specific set of skills. These sport-specific movements and activities do not generalize much to daily living skills or other athletic and play situations. There is a reason there are very few professional athletes playing more than one sport. Being good at baseball is not a prerequisite for being good at soccer, and being good at tennis is not a prerequisite for being good at football. These are all highly specified activities.

Consider general fitness and play as the roots and trunk of a tree. Sports are the branches. We do not need all of the branches in order to have a healthy, stable root and trunk system, but we do need those roots and trunk to grow solid branches. General physical fitness – pushing, pulling, climbing, jumping and throwing – builds the foundation for success in specific athletic activities. It has been my experience that most young individuals on the autism spectrum are not exactly “jumping up and down” to play a team sport. (Many of them have trouble enough just jumping up and down, and some do it in excess.) However, even if they do not want to be part of a team, we must encourage them to be physically active in other ways. General physical fitness and play are not just the cornerstones of athletic success; they contribute to optimal functioning in a variety of areas. Therefore, it is important to consider individual goals and how they can be appropriately applied to a fitness curriculum.

From an educational and life skills perspective, our job as parents, teachers and professionals is to regularly identify an individual’s areas of need and address them in the most adaptive way possible. There is a reason so many students have difficulty in a standard classroom setting. The focus on taking tests rather than “learning how to learn” leads to skills that are not necessarily applicable to future needs and goals. For fitness programing, my hierarchy tends to look something like this (in order of importance):

  1. Develop, maintain and enhance movement skills
  2. Pair exercise and physical activity with reinforcement to ultimately make the activities themselves fun and part of a lifestyle
  3. Increase initiation and creativity skills through exposure to various modalities of exercise (different equipment and activities)
  4. Support socialization through small group activities that include elements of teamwork and helping behaviors

For those with autism who often have difficulty attending to a task for durations longer than 10 or 20 seconds, creativity and socialization behaviors are not an immediate goal. It is far more.

By categorizing movement categories, parents, educators, therapists and other professionals can develop balanced programs that are appropriate for any individual or group. Instead of focusing on a particular sport or individual muscle group (arms, legs, shoulders), movement-based exercise teaches the body to function as a cohesive, optimized unit. For example, upper-body pulling motions, from pull-ups to monkey bars to resistance band pulls, incorporate the upper back muscles, shoulders, arms and hands. In addition to developing strength and stability, these exercises can aid with posture. Have you ever told someone to “sit up straight?” The fact is that you cannot force good posture. It has everything to do with the proper muscle stability. Again, a program that includes pulling as a component, as opposed to walking on a treadmill for 40 minutes, has tremendous benefit for a variety of physical and adaptive abilities. How do we put together a program that is suitable for an individual or group of people with autism? It is important to consider the participants’ current level of ability and tolerance for new activities or tasks. I have found much success with using animal-based movement patterns for mobility and movement assessment.

Bear walks, crab walks, frog hops, gorilla steps and various improvised movements allow for creativity while exposing the athlete to multiple forms of the five fundamental patterns. Other favorites are hops, jumps, overhead carries with soft medicine balls or SandBells, a variety of throws and swinging long segments of rope. Many of these modalities would be considered non-traditional, but historically speaking, they have a far more embedded and proven place in physical culture than any machine or aerobics class out there today. They are also fun, inexpensive and conducive to providing fitness for any age or functional level.

Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS, is the founder of Autism Fitness. In addition to working with his athletes on the autism spectrum, Eric consults with parents, educators, fitness professionals, and therapists around the world. He is the creator of the Autism Fitness Toolbox/PAC Profile Method and the author of several E-Books. For more information, visit and his blog, The following abbreviated post appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of the Autism Advocate. Read the post in its entirety here.

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Autism Society
The Autism Society is the oldest and largest grassroots organization within the autism community.
Autism Society

Autism Society

The Autism Society is the oldest and largest grassroots organization within the autism community.

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