The completely non-controversial case for ASD inclusion in fitness, exercise and personal training

Regular and appropriate exercise is beneficial for every body.

Controversial, I know!

What is not controversial is the impact regular exercise can have on people on the autism spectrum. Aside from the usual benefits anyone with a working body receive from exercise, there have been numerous studies showing that regular exercise can be a great support to people on the autism spectrum beyond better health.

In a 2010 systematic review of 18 existing studies on the impact of exercise on people on the autism spectrum, researchers at the University California found a consistent trend across the studies where ‘positive behaviours’ would increase, and ‘negative behaviours’ would decrease following exercise intervention.

“Following the exercise interventions decreases in stereotypy, aggression, off-task behaviour and elopement were reported. Fatigue is not likely the cause of decreases in maladaptive behaviour because on-task behaviour, academic responding, and appropriate motor behaviour (e.g., playing catch) increased following physical exercise.” (Lang, et al 2010)

(Just quickly, stereotypy is a repetitive movement or action like clicking a pen in their ear or clapping. It’s better known as ‘stimming’ [self-stimulation].)

Extra resources for Autism personal training

So now that the benefits are clear, so is the case for being more inclusive of people on the autism spectrum in our gyms, and for ourselves as fitness professionals. Working with a client on the autism spectrum, IS within the scope of practice for a personal trainer. Fitness and health services should be available to everyone, regardless of their needs/preferences or their disability. You follow the same pre-screening process as you would any client. To be extra prepared, here are some additional documents/questions you might want to consider when onboarding.

  • Behavioural Support Plan – This is a document that gives all stakeholders working with the client guidance around what to expect, how to prevent behaviours of concern, and how to respond to them consistently. Not everyone has/needs one.
  • Sensory Preferences – We all have sensory preferences and it is never out of place to ask about theirs outright. Usually, it’s just some simple adaptations to accommodate these.
  • Ask about their needs – Again, it’s entirely appropriate to ask about a client’s support needs. And it doesn’t need to be complicated. “What can I do to best support them enjoy their first session?”. The parent/carer/support worker will most likely appreciate you even thinking to ask.

Planning your first Autism personal training session

Once you’ve ticked off these boxes – and you’re comfortable to proceed – it’s time to plan your first session. WeFlex has developed several professional development courses around the unique needs of clients on the autism spectrum for our accredited fitness professionals and NDIS personal trainers (PTs). Here are some of the tips we give PT’s before their first  session.

  1. Rapport first – A successful first session isn’t a rigorous workout; it’s building rapport with the client and boosting the odds of a second session! Establishing trust, communication and understanding is the primary goal. The sweaty workouts will come later.
  2. Take it slow – The first session might not be more than them driving past the gym, let alone going inside. Change and new sensory experiences can be uncomfortable for people on the autism spectrum, so take it slow and follow their lead. You’re in this for the long haul.
  3. Communicate – Probably doesn’t need saying but it’s crucial. Don’t shy away from communication around their needs either. “Is it too loud in here?”, “Am I explaining that ok?” Communication is an excellent opportunity for them to give you feedback and help you, help them. Keep in mind that everyone communicates differently, so we need to remain adaptable to the communication preferences of our clients.
  4. Support their Sensory Experience – If you know their sensory preferences, then keep it in mind – or better yet actually plan around it. If someone avoids sensory experiences, sticking to one quiet area of the gym to start with might be a good place to start, as they acclimatise and get used to it (as one example). If the sensory environment changes around them – communicate and adapt.
  5. Have fun – Everybody loves having fun and it is a great way to build rapport and have them engaging in exercise. Incorporate your client’s interests into the session to help with engagement.

In summary

Honestly, I could go on forever. If you would like to learn more about being an NDIS personal trainer or are keen to explore opening your practice, business, gym etc to clients on the autism spectrum or those with another disabilityWeFlex is here to help. We are an NDIS registered personal training service provider and committed to supporting the fitness industry in being more inclusive.

Together, WeFlex

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