LOtC and Physical Exercise for Children with Autism

Blog Post written by Will Price, Curriculum Development Leader at a specialist autism provision school in Leicestershire.

In the last decade or so, the joint disciplines of health maintenance and fitness have become a huge part of modern life, and this movement has been firmly embraced within the education sector.

The government has invested heavily in School Sport Partnerships/Initiatives across the county, while thousands of schools nationwide partook in daily HIIT (High Intensity Impact Training) workouts in the Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach, Schools Fitness Week last September (2018). Visit any school in the UK, and you’ll be greeted by students participating in some form of sport or exercise.

Workouts at work
I’m incredibly fortunate to teach at a specialist autism provision, where staff are actively encouraged to bring their interests into their daily practice. This has resulted in the provision of equine therapy, mindfulness and gardening, among many other examples – all of which significantly enhance the student experience.

As a passionate exercise advocate, I wanted to prove to students that it wasn’t just a mandatory subject, but should be considered a key tool in the long-term pursuit of positive physical and mental health. I’ve found that the main thing when working with ASD students is to ensure they see the point and the relevance of what they are doing. And, like any other piece of gained knowledge, this needs to be taught.

Show, don’t tell
The majority of our students simply didn’t see the point in exercise; they just saw it as ‘PE’. Attempting to change perceptions is no mean feat, and this only becomes more difficult when students already have an incredibly negative perception of mainstream education. To many of the students I worked with, PE was a subject that created high levels of anxiety, when in fact it has the capacity to do the complete opposite.

Trying to change the fixed mindset and rigidity of thought that ASD often provides one of the toughest challenges when working with our pupils. Fortunately, there are multiple different types of sport and exercise, meaning that there’s always something to suit everyone. We’ve offered activities from rock climbing to dog walking, mountain biking to pony trekking. The first task is to unearth that interest, and the next step is to cultivate it.

Studies from organisations such as Autism Speaks and the Autism Research Institute have found that exercise provides a short-term reduction in stereotypical behaviours in children with ASD. Specifically, the studies found a decrease in aggression, off-task behaviour, and elopement. And, through my personal teaching experience, I agree wholeheartedly.

The studies went on to say that these outcomes weren’t because the physical activity tired the children out, but rather that their on-task behaviour, academic responding, and appropriate motor behaviour increased after the exercise. Quite simply, their bodies were enjoying the experience.

Regular exercise also helps ASD pupils to develop in the following areas:

  • Proprioception: ASD pupils can struggle with spatial awareness
  • The vestibular system: ASD pupils can have impaired balance
  • Fine and gross motor skills: ASD pupils are often poorly developed in these areas
  • Social communication: a key area in any sport and within society in general. It also happens to be one of the most challenging areas in life for ASD pupils.

Furthermore, the effect exercise and fresh air has on mental health is staggering. A combination of problems at home, teenage hormones, ASD-related frustrations, too much time spent playing computer games, minimal sleep, and various other issues can result in pupils arriving into school in a fragile mental state. Getting outside and active is one of our first tactics in changing that negative mindset and relieving the high levels of anxiety. It’s also undoubtedly one of our most successful, and one of the reasons we base our whole curriculum on Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC).

Considerations and observations
Certain aspects must be considered when working with an ASD pupil in any area, and perhaps the greatest of those is the environment you’ll be working in. Consider the sounds, visuals and smells in the surrounding area you’ve chosen; sensory overloads are a common cause of high anxiety, so keep this in mind at all times. A Channel 4 Documentary on ASD (Are You Autistic?) compared the sensory issues faced by ASD pupils with ‘watching forty television channels all at once’.

A good example of a poor environment is the first PE session I observed when arriving at my current school. In a huge sports hall, there would be around twenty pupils and twelve staff – already a huge overcrowding for the majority of our students, who found the size of mainstream classes overwhelming. Any sound made would echo around the hall, magnifying it hugely.

On occasion, a group of men would be playing football on the other side of the hall, which trebled the noise levels in the room. The lighting in the hall was incredibly bright and, in a room where sport occurs for more than twelve hours a day, the smell of sweat was often prominent. It was also difficult to find a sport that all students could enjoy and therefore partake in. It was a sensory nightmare, which caused high anxiety levels: PE had become the part of the week that staff and students began to dread. For some students, more worryingly, it negatively affected their general view of exercise.

Following this observation, the PE group was split into much smaller groups. This means pupils are given ownership over which forms of exercise they enjoy and would like to partake in. Not only that, but it makes the entire situation more personalised; they recognise that they are an integral part of the session, which ensures they don’t feel isolated or ignored.

A wider variety of environments (parks, woods, countryside, gyms climbing centres, swimming pools) are now provided. Potential sensory issues are discussed before and during sessions, as it’s important that pupils learn how manage their ASD in these scenarios. Staff leading sessions have been briefed on how to make the pupils see the relevance, both physically and mentally, of the exercise they’re undertaking.

As well as this, the use of exercise is encouraged across our curriculum and not just in PE, meaning it becomes an embedded part of daily school life. For example, in one maths session, I took a pupil to the outdoor gym at the local park. We measured how many repetitions he could do on each machine in thirty seconds. We did this three times, and then used the mean to work out his average reps.

For both teacher and pupil, this is considerably more interesting than a worksheet. The pupil also learned about each muscle group he worked for each machine, the endorphins released by the brain after regular exercise – and the subsequent effect on his mood. Equally as important as the academic learning, he has a free gym just yards from his home, and he now has both the confidence and the motivation to use it.

Transferable skills
While I recognise that this might not be feasible for mainstream education, it could easily be adapted to work within the school grounds with available PE equipment. However, if you were to switch from measuring the number of repetitions to helping pupils measure their pulse rate, you would require no equipment (pupils could do star jumps, running on the spot), and you would automatically have the simplest of cross curricular maths and science sessions. There are further examples of how to implement LOtC exercise across the curriculum here.

The simple changes we’ve made have resulted in students embracing a much more positive attitude towards exercise and adopting a healthy lifestyle. For the first time, our school is offering an ASDAN award in Sport and Nutrition, which several students have chosen to undertake. However, it is still our duty to encourage students to challenge their ASD and rigidity of thought by trying new exercise activities in new environments that may present sensory and social challenges. As previously stated, the social, mental and physical benefits of exercise and sport for ASD pupils are so great that to not constantly be looking to develop these areas would be a disservice, however challenging the process may be at times.

If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re already an advocate of LOtC. I’ve found exercise to be one of the strongest, and most effective, LOtC tools I’ve used during my time teaching in both mainstream education and specialist provisions – it’s educationally relevant across the curriculum, physically and mentally beneficial and, in my eyes, one of the most important points to consider when working with any child: it’s fun! Pupils in any educational setting engage more when learning is fun.

About the Author

Will Price is Curriculum Development Leader at a specialist autism provision school in Leicestershire and has also taught in several mainstream primary schools.

He has led CPD sessions (in both mainstream and specialist environment) on the use of sport and exercise across the curriculum at several schools, as well as sessions on promoting the importance of nutrition.

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