Why delivering autism exercise programs in your campus rec center requires a different approach.
As we all know, many people have left their trainers and turned to virtual training. However, there is a segment of the population who needs in-person training. For those with autism, supporting research shows in addition to the health-related benefits, exercise improves focus, on-task behavior and language development, and reduces maladaptive or stereotypical behaviors (1-5).
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world (5). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 54 children is diagnosed with autism. Most persons with autism learn best with individualized, in-person instruction in both the school and therapy settings — e.g., physical, occupational, behavioral.
Having fitness centers welcome this community is the first step, as many are turning away those with autism because they don’t understand how to work with them. Just as you educate and prepare yourself to lead a HIIT, yoga or spin class, it is even more critical when working with persons with autism. The reality is, developing an exercise plan for this community that is 90% correct will most likely result in 100% failure – for them and you.
The right program will not just result in exercise success, but life-changing results for them, their families and probably you. So, it begins by building the relationship and understanding how this community learns best. This is an opportunity to find clients who want and need your services, replacing the Pelaton groupies. They’re waiting, so let’s get moving.
Fitness professionals frequently share their knowledge of human anatomy when talking with new clients. When you are talking with an individual with autism or their family, you should focus on building rapport, not their exercise knowledge. For example, ask questions like:
Give them a compliment and find a way to make a connection.
When a person with autism is going to tour, let the entire facility staff know. Autism characteristics such as spinning, rocking and hand flapping could present themselves during the tour. These out-of-the-ordinary behaviors could cause staff or their clients to stare, making it uncomfortable. So, to be an inclusive fitness center, all staff need to take a course on disability education. Also, have a quiet room ready to talk and answer questions during or after the tour.
With many clients, completing a full physical assessment in one session is not practical. This can depend on both their age and ability level. Think of the assessment as another opportunity for you to build a positive relationship and embed exercises when possible. Moreover, if the individual comes dressed in jeans, a polo shirt and wearing penny loafers, just assess what you can.
By David S. Geslak, the founder of Exercise Connection. He has pioneered exercise tools and programs to engage and improve the lives of those with autism. David created the award-winning, research-supported app, Exercise Buddy®, and in partnership with American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), he developed the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate®. This was ACSM’s #2 most popular CEC Course of 2019 & 2020. His commitment and methodology to bringing exercise to those with autism has been enthusiastically embraced around the world by professionals, higher education, and the autism community.