High-Functioning Autistic Students and Problems in Physical Education Classes

"My child (with HFA) struggles in PE class... he's clumsy... gets teased as a result... and the teacher doesn't intervene to try to stop the teasing. SO then my son takes matters in his own hands and starts acting out towards the kids who are teasing. Then he's the one that gets in trouble. It's a bad cycle.  Any suggestions? Would there be any helpful advice I could give his teacher so he'll understand my child's challenges?"

Including kids with High Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s in gym classes is not an uncommon occurrence. More and more, kids with “special needs” have gym alongside typically developing kids. Most physical education (PE) instructors teach young people on the autism spectrum although they have little knowledge about the disorder and how PE classes affect those who have it.

Successfully educating kids with HFA involves a deeper understanding of the disorder and how it directly affects the students’ ability to participate fully. When developing instructional programs for kids on the autism spectrum in gym class, educators should examine (a) emotional and behavioral characteristics, (b) academic and cognitive functioning, (c) physical and gross motor development, and (d) social deficits in relation to peer interactions. Rooted within these areas may be such issues as language and speech delays, social skills deficits, and teasing/bullying issues.

Children with HFA demonstrate a wide variety of behavioral characteristics. In educational settings, they often experience anxiety, depression, aggression, and hyperactivity because of frustration during the learning process. They also display a limited number of interests, which can lead to a strong preoccupation with “sameness.” This sameness can cause a predisposition to obsessive routines, repetitive rituals, and difficulty when transitioning.

Parents and teachers often notice the predisposition to sameness in behavior rigidity, since this rigidity affects both the thoughts and behavior of HFA children. Novel situations often produce anxiety for these kids. They may be uncomfortable with change in general, which can result in behavior that may be viewed as defiant and can lead to “meltdowns.”

One main area of concern for kids with HFA is socially inappropriate behavior stemming from lack of social understanding, which can range from simply annoying to highly disruptive behaviors. Unfortunately, most young people on the autism spectrum have difficulty communicating their emotional state or understanding the emotional states of others. This inability further exacerbates socially inappropriate behaviors.

On an emotional level, students with HFA have difficulty accepting that they make mistakes and become easily stressed because of their inflexibility. They also tend to have lower self-esteem than their same-aged peers. Such vulnerabilities may lead them to become targets for bullying and teasing.

PE teachers should actively participate in programs for preventing bullying and should employ various strategies within the gym setting. However, to be effective, ALL educators should employ the same strategies across all academic settings. Also, the PE teacher should work closely with other members of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to achieve this goal. Through effective collaboration, all educators can be consistent with the goals related to preventing bullying and the strategies necessary to achieve those goals.

Strategies that PE teachers can use to prevent bullying during gym class include:
  • being consistent in handling situations in which bullying takes place
  • being proactive
  • focusing on the needs of students with “special needs”
  • modeling appropriate behavior
  • talking with students about bullying
  • telling students to report situations

Another identified area of concern is called a “meltdown.” Meltdowns are most frequently related to frustration, being thwarted, sensory sensitivities, and difficulties in compliance when a particularly rigid response pattern has been challenged or interrupted. Educators frequently overlook the underlying antecedent when they address the meltdown. When the youngster does engage in a specific behavior problem, he may be experiencing feelings of stress and a lack of control. In addition, the youngster may exhibit a high incidence of attention problems. Many children on the spectrum have difficulty determining those elements in their environments to which they should attend, so they attend to the wrong things. In some cases, they may even receive a diagnosis of ADHD as a coexisting condition.

Physical and Gross Motor Development—

Many kids with HFA do not possess highly athletic motor skills. Researchers are more and more recognizing that motor functioning is a deficit area for kids on the autism spectrum. These young people typically have low fitness and low activity levels as compared to their “typical” peers. This problem occurs because of the high incidence of children with developmental disorders who have a sedentary lifestyle.

HFA teens are significantly less active than typically developing teens, and few engage in extracurricular activities. Clearly, promoting physical activity in this population is of high importance; however, because of the challenges that these children face, encouraging them to be physically active at acceptable levels may be difficult. Specifically, motor skill deficits may hinder successful participation in gym classes if educators do not address these deficits through effective intervention plans.

Kids with HFA generally have difficulty with tasks requiring balance and coordination, and they often display a generalized muscular weakness (called “hypertonia”), which affects posture, movement, strength, and coordination. They may have difficulty judging distance, height, and depth, or may engage in self-stimulatory behaviors. They may also have problems with manual dexterity, and have impaired dynamic balance, or an inability to perform rapid, alternating movements. An inability to alternate hand and limb movements can directly affect an HFA student's ability to fully participate in physical activities that involve such skills.

Another common impairment for children with HFA is developmental coordination disorder (DCC). DCC often coexists with autism. It appears to be a problem involving the process of motor planning. Common deficits that kids with this disorder experience include clumsiness, abnormal gait, and fine-motor skill deficits. Behaviors attributable to these deficits include difficulty riding a bike, playing ball games, throwing, catching, and kicking. Not only do these physical challenges lead to problems participating in gym class, but they can also lead to social integration problems in teenagers with HFA.

Yet another issue for children on the autism spectrum is the coexistence of sensory integration disorder. These young people often have heightened sensitivity to touch, tastes, smells, sounds, and sights. Avoidance of touch, pressure, warmth, and other contributing factors can foster avoidance in participating in specific games or activities. Oversensitivity to sound can also affect routines and procedures, especially in situations in which a coach or PE teacher uses a whistle or bell. PE teachers should be sensitive to the HFA student's sensory needs, and should modify or adapt group-designed activities (e.g., by using verbal signals instead of using a whistle).

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

PE teachers can use the following strategies in the gym setting to reduce high levels of frustration in students with HFA:

1. Use simplistic and literal rules for HFA kids to understand and follow.

2. Reinforce appropriate social interactions and skill performance with a consistent behavior management system, which can include internal and external reinforcers. PE teachers should reinforce appropriate social interactions, as well as reinforcing the HFA student for meeting classroom expectations.

3. The PE teacher should keep his/her interactions with the youngster predictable (e.g., plan the same warm-up procedures every day, and give the youngster advance notice about activities planned for that day). "Insistence on sameness” can be helped through providing a predictable environment, avoiding surprises, and telling the “special needs” student about changes as soon as possible.

4. Provide exercise and activities on the basis of individual interests. Building on the interests of the HFA student can serve as a motivator and bring meaning to the activity.

5. Provide a visual schedule. Kids on the spectrum benefit from using a visual schedule, because it serves as a cue to them about upcoming activities.

6. One way to deescalate frustration is to allow the HFA youngster to use a quiet or “private area” so that she can compose herself or think through an activity. In the gym, PE teachers have limited spaces that provide reduced noise levels or are less stimulating. However, the perimeter of the gym is more desirable than the center. If a youngster needs to regain control of her behavior, and the distractions within the gymnasium are hindering her ability to do so, the teacher can consider placing a beanbag chair just inside the office. Regardless of the designated area, the student should always be within the view of the teacher.

7. The most difficult time during gym class is unstructured time. If unstructured time exists, provide more structure by directing the HFA student to work in his own areas of interest. Simply instructing him in activities that reinforce his areas of interest encourages and motivates him to be more active.

8. Establish clear rules and consequences. The use of clear rules and consequences helps provide a more predictable environment.

9. The PE teacher can use effective data collection to monitor the behavioral progress of the youngster. The information obtained through effective data collection is a valuable tool in developing IEP objectives and determining specific skill deficits.

10. Collaborate with the HFA youngster's other teachers. Collaboration allows the PE teacher to be consistent in the way that he/she interacts with and instructs the youngster. The PE teacher can then adopt the same type of behavior management system for the youngster that other teachers are using throughout the youngster's day.

11. Provide opportunities for the HFA student to acquire skills through multiple means (e.g., when working with the youngster to promote better awareness of vestibular input and balancing skills, ask her to use a variety of equipment that incorporates movement such as swings, slides, balance beams, and rockers).

12. Use sensory stimulation to decrease self-stimulation and to help the HFA student remain attentive to the task presented.

13. Use repetition and re-teaching. Kids with HFA are frequently unaware that their skill levels are not equal to those of their peers, or that they perform a task incorrectly. In this case, the student may continue using the same movements, thus not reaching the appropriate level of the skill. Teaching a new skill may require many attempts and considerable practice. The youngster may also need a considerable amount of re-teaching of skills.

14. When teaching skills that include several component parts, break the parts up and have the HFA student practice them separately. The PE teacher should demonstrate skills in this manner (e.g., a backward chain of “part practice” when teaching a youngster the skills involved in bowling would be to first teach him how to swing his arm with the bowling ball in hand before asking the youngster to attempt the approach used in performing the overall skill). Once the youngster masters the first skill (e.g., the swing), then he can begin to practice the approach without using the bowling ball. After the youngster has addressed both skills, he can combine the skills and execute bowling in its entirety.

15. To have a successful gross motor plan, the HFA youngster needs to have (a) a mental picture of what needs to occur, (b) clear vestibular and proprioceptive feedback regarding movement, and (c) the ability to make automatic, reflexive adjustments to moving in time and space. In addressing gross motor planning, the PE teacher may need to help the youngster set specific personal goals. Although the child’s goals may differ from those of her peers, the goals should be clear, realistic, and attainable.

16. Try to provide alternative activities (as indicated on the IEP). The physical demands of many activities taught in gym classes involve physical interactions among classmates (e.g., hand holding, spotting for gymnastics, leaning against one another, etc.). Kids with HFA may exhibit hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity during this time. Accommodations may be necessary, and the youngster may need an alternative activity if the degree of sensitivity is greatly affecting his ability to participate.

17. When possible, limit competitive and team sports. Team sports demand an ability to quickly understand, process and respond to social cues under the pressure of competition. Expecting an HFA student to function - or be accepted by peers - in this setting is unrealistic.

18. Utilize individual fitness activities. The tendency for kids on the spectrum to do well with repetitive activities can be an opportunity to teach individual fitness activities (e.g., bicycling). Researchers have found that these young people prefer such activities as running, cycling, and rowing.

19. Most PE teachers select activities geared toward team sports. They should use caution when determining placement on a team. The teacher himself/herself should assign teams instead of using peer-selection.

20. Assess developmental readiness in the student with HFA. When determining the sequence for introducing skills, the PE teacher should examine previously mastered developmental skills and determine new skills by using a sequential manner and rate that is predictable.

21. Break skills into smaller component parts, thus helping the student with HFA to focus his motor planning in relation to the part rather than to the whole. Sequentially linking (or chaining) the component parts can then help the youngster acquire proficiency in performing the required skill.

The gym setting often includes a greater number of kids than the typical number in the general academic setting. This increased number of kids may result in higher than average noise levels. Modifying the physical environment can reduce the onset of a behavioral outburst in a youngster with HFA.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism
The following are examples of ways to modify the environment:

1. Use nonverbal visual cues to accompany auditory messages. These cues can help the HFA student to refocus attention to the task.

2. Simplify the task. If the “special needs” student is misbehaving while attempting a task, he may be frustrated. Simplifying the task may help the student to succeed – and simultaneously reduce inappropriate behaviors. Performing a task analysis on the specific skill can enable the PE teacher to break the larger task into smaller components that he/she can teach independently, yet in sequence.

3. Reduce excessive noise when possible. Use “nonverbal signals" (e.g., colored light systems, hand signals, pictorial cues) to reinforce appropriate noise levels, including the intensity and pitch of vocalizations. In addition, minimize background noises and fluorescent lighting, because many students on the spectrum have heightened sensitivities to these elements.

4. PE teachers can organize the physical structure of the classroom to decrease anxiety levels (e.g., clearly label materials and the location of the activities, which helps ensure that the structures within this environment are consistent).

5. Maintain routines as much as possible. Routines should include "sameness" in activities, including using the same equipment and the same class organization.

6. Try to limit visual distractions. Reducing the number of visual distractions helps the student to maintain focus on the delivery of instruction.

7. Lastly, always encourage and reward progress and achievement by using verbal praise.

There's a lot for kids on the autism spectrum to worry about while at school, and gym class is usually at the top of the list. Gym class can be very different in middle and high school than it is in elementary school, and because autistic kids are often so self-conscious, gym class is often the most feared part of the day. If a youngster is dreading gym, there's plenty teachers and parents can do to help. The ideas listed above will help prepare him or her for all the challenges that gym class can bring.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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