When The Wheels Fall Off: Coaching Clients With Autism
The following is a guest post by Eric Chessen of AutismFitness.com:
This morning on the platform I snatched the first 75kgs off the blocks and overhead into what Coach Stan approved as a good pull. The second repetition made it past my shins and then, as is my crutch, I thought too much and lost the attempt. I've made this lift for doubles before, and undoubtedly will again. That perfect line graph of physical progress exists on paper, with beginners, and in those coveted few weeks a year when you feel completely and indescribably “on.” When it comes to my work with clients with autism, however, there are a few more…variables.
Your undergrad fitness textbook has you squatting 800lbs in no time!
Reality says otherwise.
When reality strikes, progress in two distinct areas can lead to success in not only becoming more physically capable, but enjoying fitness. These two areas are known as “adaptive” and “cognitive.” These learning concepts are applicable to all training clients, and can be uniquely witnessed in clients with autism.
Sometimes my athletes with autism appear to actually lose a skill, randomly and without any clear catalyst. Fidele, in the videos below, has forgotten how to squat numerous times. Why? I have no idea. One time he just starting bending forward at the knees and locked his ankles so that a proper squat was impossible. In other delightful sessions he'll bend so far forward that I have to provide a full physical assist to get his form back. Mind you he CAN squat with a 20lb kettlebell held behind his head.
This video was taken last week (May, 2012) during one of our fitness sessions. Fidele can clearly handle this 12lb bar for reps in a squat to a Dynamax ball (my favorite cuing tool). Look at him go. He's even smiling. Smiling! Teen with autism smiles while squatting - while I await the call of PBS or CNN or ESPN, take a look.
All of three minutes later, we get the footage below. Fidele, my star athlete, appears to regard my request for him to squat as a foreign and odd objective.
What. Happened. This is where the other two aspects of fitness for the autism population become required understanding: the adaptive and the cognitive. Adaptive refers to the motivation of the athlete to engage in fitness activities, and the cognitive considers both learning style and ability to follow single and multiple directions. Fidele knew what I was asking him to do in the first video. I did model it for him a slight bit and provide some cuing. At this point in my career, as I'm sure it is for many of you, that part of coaching is ingrained.
My educated guess, based on Fidele's history and my experience with him and his autism-diagnosed cohorts, is that on the second set of squats his level of motivation declined. As a background, seven years ago when we began our fitness sessions, Fidele had some significant behavioral problems and his motivation to perform our exercises (or any task, really) was non-existent. By gradually building up his tolerance of imposed demands, we were able create a situation in which skills were acquired.
Even in these recent videos, you'll notice he's ready to walk off to something else as soon as the activity is completed. I've created a contingency (if-then relationship) in which he first performs the exercise and then has a break anywhere from 1-3 minutes. He'll usually walk up and down the driveway and try to pull little flowers off his mother's plants. I'm sure you find the same with your own athletes.
Is there any structure in this chaos of cognitive and behavioral fray? Fo’ sho. I'm doing this checklist style because I thrive on lists:
- Identify whether the obstacle is physical, adaptive, or cognitive (could be a combination too).
- Back off when there is a clear episode of confusion. Simplify the activity, score a success, and progress.
- Provide adequate and appropriate reinforcement following success. Breaks and music are cool (Cheetos are not).
- Stay consistent with mastered skills. There is often an inclination with the ASD (autism spectrum disorders) population to take the path of minimal effort. If you know they can press a 20lb bar overhead with full extension, hold them to that standard. It actually helps a LOT with understanding the expectation.
I hope the addition of video has been a helpful look into the world of exercise for the athlete with autism. This is a population that could use the services of dedicated and capable professionals in the fitness world. Thanks for reading.