Physical education is a national staple for standards of learning. Physical education, despite budget cuts to schools across the country, remains a basic requirement for the successful and complete education of each school year. Each state has varying requirements, but each has similar components. These include team sportsmanship, basic game strategies for popular sports, physical agility and goals in exercise performance. Physical education, like academic instruction, may pose several challenges for the student with autism. Social impairments, language deficits and processing disorders are likely to affect the ability of a person with autism to master the requirements for a successful physical education. To address these challenges, adaptive physical education, or APE provides an excellent alternative.
Adaptive physical education seeks to provide optimal physical instruction for the individual with autism. Many APE programs address sensory problems and repetitive behaviors to the benefit of student learning. Sensory issues may prevent a child from participating in a sporting activity such as swimming, baseball or contact sports. Accommodations are made for these learners. Sports equipment such as helmets or protective gear can be traumatic for the child with sensory issues.
APE provides students with autism opportunities to transfer repetitive behaviors into a positive learning experience. Children with autism have tendencies to flap their hands, arms or legs. They tend to rock their heads or rock while seated. These behaviors can be transformed into exercise and given a specific duration. Specific durations allow the child to express and control tic behavior.
A common strategy for APE that differs from standard physical education is visual learning. Students with autism have language deficits, making verbal instruction difficult to process. Typically, standard physical education is taught verbally and kinesthetically. APE allows visual instruction to take the lead, providing optimal processing for the learner with autism. Small group instruction also provides support for practice. When the child participates in a physical activity, a teacher or support staff member is on hand to provide direct instruction as needed.
Adaptive physical education provides a physical outlet for the child which can incorporate occupational therapy and communication practice. The overall goal of any educational program, whether physical or academic, is to reach the goals outlined in the child’s individual education plan, or IEP. These goals often address the delays and deficits associated with spectrum diagnosis. Academic goals are often impeded by stress and anxiety associated with classroom triggers. The APE environment allows the child to relieve physical tension while engaging in learning activities.
APE is ideal for children on the spectrum who participate in mainstream academic classrooms. While the child may be able to keep pace with his peers academically, physical education is entirely different. APE allows the child to learn at his or her own pace, according to his or her own goals. The goals for APE are developed by the case manager, occupational therapist and physical education teacher.
In some settings, it is ideal to incorporate behavioral goals into the APE plan. These might be applied through ABA standards. In an ABA APE setting, the pre-mack principle is applied. In this model, the student is offered access to preferred activities upon the completion of a non-preferred task. In other words, if the child resists a physically educational activity, he or she might be prompted to complete the activity to earn a preferred one. If a child demonstrated aversion to jumping jacks and preferred to play with a ball, the ball would be withheld until the jumping jacks were completed. Positive reinforcement and verbal prompting might be applied to task completion.
Adaptive PE is the ideal environment for a learner with autism who faces physical challenges. This type of class offers structure and safety for the learner with autism. Visual, kinesthetic learning occurs in an autism-friendly environment.