The very fact that you typed “How to train autistic children” into a search engine and opened this article tells us that you’re passionate about what you do. You’ve chosen, through one journey or another, to work with children with special needs, and you want to do better when working with them. Whether you’re a personal trainer, a special ed teacher, a parent of a child with special needs, or a behavioral therapist, we can all use a little help, now and again, when we’re trying to help others.
Note: Most of our readership is personal trainers, so throughout this article, we’ll refer to the children you work with who have autism as “your clients,” but we understand they very well could be your students or your own children, so we’ll try to be as inclusive as possible.
How to Train Autistic Children
Step 1: Tap into Self Awareness
Here’s the trouble with training and teaching: Sometimes you can get so focused on other people and their progress that you forget to look inward. Well, so what, right? You’re trying to better your community and the people in your life. What do you need to focus on yourself for?
Allow us to dazzle you with a seemingly unrelated metaphor:
On airlines, when the flight attendants are advising you how to put on your Oxygen mask, they’re always sure to remind you to put your mask on yourself before putting one on your children. That seems counterintuitive doesn’t it? Shouldn’t you be selfless in every way for your children? But what would happen if you put the Oxygen mask on your child first, and then the Oxygen supply became so low that you became unconscious? Your child would have air supply, but no certain means through which to survive a very confusing, chaotic situation, making survival (if you’ll allow us briefly to be blunt) unlikely. However, if you put the mask on yourself first, and then your child, the chances of you both surviving are sky high, pun intended.
So, why are we talking about potential plane crashes and Oxygen masks?
We mean to illustrate that you have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others. You have to be aware of yourself — your feelings, your reactions, your needs — in order to be aware of the needs of others.
You can increase your self-awareness by making more time for yourself.
We don’t just mean time to unwind and binge-watch the latest Netflix release, although that can certainly be a form of self-love. We mean that it’s important to sit in the quiet occasionally, as excruciating as that sounds. When you’re driving home, try to sit in silence for a while, without turning on Spotify or the podcast you’re obsessed with. Focus on your surroundings. See how the steering wheel feels under your hands. Feel the pressure of your thighs against your seat. Pay attention to your breathing without changing it in any way. If rage flairs inside you when someone cuts you off, stop yourself from shouting or muttering under your breath and consider instead: Why did I feel that way? What was it about that that made me so upset? Am I really angry? Or was I feeling fear, triggering a fight or flight response?
Having this kind of awareness when you’re around your clients can help you keep from expressing or losing your temper, make your more patient and understanding, and ultimately, make you a better trainer.
Step 2: Get to Know Your Client
So, we just spent an awfully long time talking about the importance of knowing yourself. Now, we’re switching gears: It’s just as important to get to know your clients. Thankfully, even special needs classrooms usually have a low student count, meaning that the task of getting to know your students or clients individually will be much more manageable than, say, doing the same thing with an average-size classroom.
Getting to know someone takes time and effort. You can, without meaning to, get to know your clients over the course of each session, taking note of their little nuances and preferences. But success doesn’t rear its beautiful head in situations that begin without intention.
Here are some tips for getting to know your clients with autism:
- Pay special attention to the first session, noting strengths and weaknesses, interests and disinterests.
- Ask your client what they like to do for fun.
- Ask your client what they did or did like about the session.
- If your client isn’t able to communicate these things, offer some variety in the first session and let them show you what types of exercise they’re good at and which types they would enjoy doing the most.
This seems like a fairly obvious statement to make, but it’s important to come right out and say nonetheless: Your clients are people first. Each one is going to be different. You can’t expect what you do with one client to work with another. Don’t switch to autopilot in your sessions; stay aware. Pay attention to your client’s changing needs, and you’ll be successful in achieving their (or their caregiver’s) long-term goals.
Step 3: Adapt Your Approach to Meet Your Client’s Needs
Now that you’ve gotten to know your client a little better, you can use this information to help them succeed in the realm of fitness (or education, or whatever realm you’re working in).
For example, if you know your client enjoys jumping, you might incorporate a mini trampoline into the cardio segment of your workout routine. If you know your client uses their hands for stimming (hand flapping, patting themselves on the leg, etc.), try getting them to hold dumbbells. They’ll workout their arm muscles even before you instruct them on what to do next.
But getting to know your client taught you more about them than their interests. You probably also learned about some of their behavioral triggers. This will help you avoid saying something distressing to your client or touching your client in a way that is uninviting and distressing (softly on their arm, rather than firmly, for example). If behavioral outbursts are a consistent problem with your client, you can focus the workout routine on core strengthening exercises. This helps your client feel more grounded and also teaches them to continue to feel grounded in distressing situations.
Step 4: Establish a Routine
If you have any prior experience working with children with autism, then you know that routines bring them comfort. Of course, it’s not always possible to stick with a routine (in the case of inclement weather or illness), but a predominantly consistent schedule can help, even in these rare instances.
While the workouts you may want to focus on may change someone from session to session, you can keep the workout themes in the same order each time. For example, you can start with a warmup, go to cardio, focus on the core, work on arms, and then work on legs. So, even if you wanted to do Russian twists with a medicine ball in one session, but you want to focus on crunches in another, you can still help the routine feel consistent by engaging in core workouts around the same time during the session.
Step 5: Make Fitness (or Learning) Sensational
It’s no secret that children with autism are sensitive to content. A noise you consider background could seem all-consuming to them. A shirt tag may annoy you for a moment, but for them, the scratching and tickling seems constant. It’ll be all they’ll think about during the session.
This information can help you in two ways: It’ll let you know what sensory distractions you need to eliminate during the session to keep your client focused and what sensational exercises you should implement to keep your client engaged.
Try eliminating these distractions:
- Shirts with tags. Let your client’s caregiver understand how much of a distraction this is for them and request that they purchase tagless workout shirts.
- Overwhelming noises. You can provide your client with noise-canceling headphones, for instance.
- Tactile discomforts. If the texture of the dumbbells is disconcerting to your client, consider allowing them to borrow weight-lifting gloves to keep them from coming into contact with the material.
Try implementing these sensory exercises:
- LED workout equipment. You can use hand weights with lights in them or hoola hoops that light up to engage your client in fitness.
- Colorful exercise balls. Who doesn’t have fun sitting on an exercise ball? They’re bouncy, so they’re great for the core, great for working on balance, and sensationally fun.
- Swing. Does a workout have to take place at a gym? You might meet with your client at a playground one day and get them to swing to work on both balance and their ab muscles.
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