Q. What makes your approach the right fit for adults with autism? Isn't Special Olympics a good option? How about a personal trainer?
Our approach takes the motivational, physical, and cognitive differences of those with autism into account.
In a regular PE class or a typical training setting, the athletes are motivated to participate and to do their best. Athletes have goals of their own which likely drive them to seek out a gym or personal trainer. They are aware of the health benefits or have experienced the good results they feel when they exercise. Student athletes enjoy playing team sports and are motivated to have fun with their friends and/or to win the state championship. In general, coaches and trainers working with this population never have to consider the level of motivation in their athletes. If they weren't motivated, they would not be there. At first, athletes with autism do not even know why they are at the gym. They don't know or care that exercise is good for them, that it will help them live a healthier and happier life. They are probably there because their parent or caregiver brought them, just like most things they do in their programming. Athletes with autism might be more motivated to avoid participating (by performing off task behaviors) with the hope they will be allowed to go back to their comfort zone on the couch or in front of the TV. Our goal is to gently guide them to perform exercises through the use of well conceived reinforcement strategies and eventually to lead them to the knowledge that movement and exercise can be fun and reinforcing in itself. Eventually they will want to be in the gym and may even seek out movement and exercise over other activities.
In team sports, time is spent working on very specific movements. Special Olympians spend their weekly practice time shooting baskets, dribbling a basketball or throwing a bowling ball to get ready for the basketball or bowling tournament depending on the time of year. These athletes likely have compromised movement patterns or weaknesses that go unnoticed. They are not addressed because it isn't part of the program's goal. One of our main goals is to help individual athletes correct faulty movement patterns or weaknesses. Doing this will surely improve the lives of these athletes, allowing them to move more effectively outside the gym. At home they might be able to help carry groceries or help with yard work. They may be more effective and have more stamina at their volunteer jobs because they are stronger and healthier. Perhaps most important, because they have been successful each time they come to the gym, they will surely have more confidence in their abilities, maybe for the first time.
Personal trainers assume that their clients will be able to follow verbal instructions or do an exercise after they demonstrate it once. Interestingly, this is also the case in the few Special Olympics practices I have experienced with Henry. There is not a lot of attention paid to whether or not an athlete understands the directions and there is not much, if any, effort put into modifying the instructions in a way that might help them understand. As a result, athletes with autism end up confused and frustrated, which leads to more maladaptive behaviors, which makes it even less likely they will be able to process anything being taught. They wind up wandering about or stimming in the corner, which is a waste of their time.
Recently high schools as well as Special Olympics have started having unified teams, in which typical peers and athletes with special needs play on the same team. This is certainly a welcome step toward bringing about increased inclusion, acceptance, and understanding of our athletes. Unfortunately, because it is new, the experience right now is probably better for everyone else than it is for our athletes with autism. This is because the cognitive deficits present in autism are still not considered. Well-meaning coaches and student peers talk about concepts of "defense" and "offense" and "scoring points" while athletes with autism are just trying to figure out exactly what it is that they are expected to be doing. We see the same thing over and over: increased stimming, self-talk, and avoidance behavior. The approach we use keeps things simple and allows our athletes to actually perform exercise and feel good about themselves because the expectations are clear from the beginning.
Q. What will the program look like?
The goal is an hour of training per session. We may have to work up to this based on the athlete's tolerance and receptivity. The first few sessions will be dedicated to achieving a degree of comfort and thoroughly assessing the athlete's physical, cognitive, and adaptive functioning. From the findings of the PAC Profile™ assessment, we will develop goals and an appropriate program to work toward those goals, always keeping in mind the individual's goals as determined by his or her team and shared with us in advance.
Once we have developed an individual program that works for each athlete, we will add in dyad sessions as appropriate. The dyad would be in addition to the number of agreed upon private sessions and would be included in the price. Once several athletes are confidently and successfully doing the program, the objective is to begin adding in training sessions from dyads to small groups. Our vision is that our athletes will begin to enjoy the benefits of training with their peers on a regular basis and they will look forward to these social experiences.