Autism and fitness: breaking down barriers

It’s imperative that we encourage people on the autism spectrum to participate in fitness and sporting activities, writes PT Amy Webster.

It is widely recognised that taking part in physical activity not only helps to keeps us fit and well, it can increase self-esteem, develop social skills and improve mental health and general wellbeing.

However, research shows that people with autism are less likely than others to participate in sport or physical activity due to factors related to the condition, including heightened fear and anxiety in social situations, difficulty understanding body language and metaphor, and sensory challenges.

In my former role as coordinator of the National Autistic Society’s (NAS) Active for Autism project in the UK, I worked to ensure that children, young people and adults on the autism spectrum could be fully included in sport and physical activity at school and in the community, and I bring that passion for increasing autism understanding and inclusion to my work as a PT here in Australia.

If someone on the autism spectrum responds negatively to a sporting or physical activity it can be perceived as a behavioural issue when this isn’t necessarily the case. Rather, it may be a reaction to coping with a sensory sensitivity, a coach who is not communicating in a way that they understand, or something else that takes them out of their comfort zone.

For example, they might refuse to enter the gym because the music volume is more than they can cope with, or they may appear uncooperative because they are unable to tolerate a hands-on approach to coaching.

I’ve encountered people that refuse to wear team bibs with tiny holes in them because they say the material feels like a cheese grater on their skin.

There are some general strategies that can be implemented to help autistic people feel included in physical activity. However, it is important to remember that autism affects different people in different ways and to varying degrees, so these strategies should be taken as a general guide only.

Communication

Autistic people often find it difficult to follow group instructions, so it may help to give them instructions individually. Say their name first to catch their attention and let them know that you are speaking to them.

Communicate safety rules clearly and in a way that the participant understands before the start of an activity. Make copies of the instructions and keep them on display.

Break up directions into small chunks and, wherever possible, support these with pictures, gestures or written cues. Visual timetables can be useful to show the order of events in a team activity or a small group circuit workout, for example.

Be aware that figurative language, idioms and metaphors may be confusing to someone on the autism spectrum, so try to always state exactly what you mean.

When asking questions, speak slowly and clearly and give the person plenty of time to process what you are saying before expecting a response.

Adaptations

Audit the environment and your practice to ensure that it will not present too many difficulties for people with sensory sensitivities. Consider sound, volume, lights and other stimulatory factors.

Be aware that some clients may have difficulties with balance and coordination, which will make some activities difficult for them. Help them by breaking the activity down into smaller steps and allowing time to practice.

Anticipating change

If you plan to move on to a new activity, take steps to alleviate the anxiety that may be experienced when confronted with change. This might involve showing the client around an unfamiliar venue or talking them through the new routine, backed up with visuals if appropriate.

The unique challenges of training and coaching people with autism should be embraced by trainers looking to develop their expertise and evolve their training style. Rather than simply putting the prospect of working with this demographic in the ‘too hard’ basket, you should consider the fact that the strategies you implement with autistic participants will set you up to be a better trainer and coach for all of your clients, regardless of ability. Without question, personal trainers can learn a lot from their autistic participants.


Amy Webster is a personal trainer at Arcadium HQ in QLD. She has worked as a coordinator for the National Autistic Society’s (NAS) Active for Autism project in the UK and with the Sporting Wheelies and Disabled Association in Australia, delivering their Inclusive Sport and Physical Activity workshops. amy@arcadiumhq.com.au