The new school term is firmly underway. However, for several young people that have Autism and additional needs the idea of returning to mainstream school can reignite several negative experiences. The nature of mainstream education means autistic children often struggle to engage in or access lessons that are key to their education. The latest data collection found that 70% of individuals with autism are currently enrolled in a mainstream setting with 74% of parents admitting their child’s setting did not fully meet their needs (National Autistic Society, 2021).
Picture arriving for work on a Monday morning. Your manager greets you with a dirty football bib and tells you to put it on then go outside and warm up with a lap of the field. Its freezing cold, pouring with rain and you’re covered in mud. This is all in the first 5 minutes of you’re morning; would you be able to cope? To an Autistic young person, this is the reality of a mainstream school P.E. lesson. The smell of the changing rooms, noise of the teacher shouting out instructions and discomfort of often challenging weather conditions can quickly contribute to sensory overload. The video below gives an insight into the potential daily struggles of an Autistic individual.
Amazing Things Happen (2017) National Autistic Society.
“Yes, but it depends”
Participation of Autistic young people in P.E. appears very much conditional. There is a willingness to be involved but findings refer to themes such as sensory difficulties, fear of injury and exclusion that must be addressed before the individual feels comfortable engaging in a mainstream school PE lesson. Interviews from this research frequently found the young people to use the phrase “yes, but it depends” when asked if they would like to be involved in physical activity. (Arnell et al. 2018) In addition, fear of exclusion, social interactions and physical ability all appear as prominent themes surrounding participation. (Healy et al. 2013)
Arnell et al. (2018)
Although on paper reasonable adjustments should have been made for each child to access P.E., sometimes just the simplest of alterations make the biggest difference to their experience. Changing rooms often present the biggest sensory challenge of the lesson. Is there another area where someone that struggles with the environment could get changed and keep their belongings somewhere they know is safe? Processing time is also vital. Too many instructions and demands being placed in quick successions may cause an overload and resulting shutdown. As they are in many aspects of life, first impressions are key. Ensuring the environment is clearly set out, safe and organized can instil a great sense of security in an Autistic individual.
Reaping the Benefits
Despite the sensory headaches and unpredictability that P.E. brings, the benefits of participation on the individual have also been researched. Sensory processing can cause common underdevelopment of motor skills, muscular endurance in Autistic individuals; areas that physical activity can help to strengthen. (Healy et al. 2018) This area of research highlights physical activity as an evidence-based strategy for ASD support. In the classroom, academic benefits have also been displayed. Findings from interviews with four autistic secondary school pupils concluded that exercise in its simplest form, such as jogging, can contribute towards academic achievement. Nicholson et al. (2010) The findings highlight the important role exercise has in allowing autistic young people to regulate, with attention span and concentration levels being negatively affected if they are unable to do so.
American College of Sports Medicine (2019) 3 Key Elements to Successfully Training Children with Autism. Available at : https://www.acsm.org/blog-detail/acsm-certified-blog/2019/07/09/3-key-elements-to-successfully-training-children-with-autism
With clear structure, simple instructions and time to process, Autistic individuals will find their P.E. lessons a more comfortable environment to learn in. It is important to note that high functioning Autistic individuals often wish to blend in with the crowd. Therefore, any these adjustments must be subtle to ensure their needs are being met.
- Arnell, S., Jerlinder, K. and Lundqvist, L.O., 2018. Perceptions of physical activity participation among adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: A conceptual model of conditional participation. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 48(5), pp.1792-1802.
- Goldman, K.J., DeLeon, I.G., Schieber, E., Weinsztok, S.C. and Nicolini, G., 2021. Increasing physical activity and analyzing parametrically the effects on stereotypy in children with autism spectrum disorder. Behavioral Interventions, 36(4), pp.867-891
- Healy, Seán, Rachel Msetfi, and Stephen Gallagher. “‘Happy and a bit nervous’: The experiences of children with autism in physical education.” British Journal of Learning Disabilities41, no. 3 (2013): 222-228.
- Healy, S., Nacario, A., Braithwaite, R.E. and Hopper, C., 2018. The effect of physical activity interventions on youth with autism spectrum disorder: A meta‐Autism Research, 11(6), pp.818-833.
- National Autistic Society (2021) ‘School Report 2021’. Available at: https://www.autism.org.uk/what-we-do/news/school-report-2021. Accessed on 20/05/22.
- American College of Sports Medicine (2019) 3 Key Elements to Successfully Training Children with Autism. Available at : https://www.acsm.org/blog-detail/acsm-certified-blog/2019/07/09/3-key-elements-to-successfully-training-children-with-autism