Social initiation and interaction are two of the most pervasive and challenging deficits among individuals on the autism spectrum. Through exercise and physical activity, it is possible to shape social skills. Interaction can be taught in several different ways including incidental teaching in the natural environment and/or using discrete trial or chaining tasks. While these situations can be used to teach the rote language and orientation skills, there often lacks meaningful exchange. When two children are making eye contact because they are playing catch together, or helping one another during an obstacle course. Physical fitness is a gateway towards many social skills that are otherwise difficult to teach.
Socialization is a difficult concept to generalize because human interaction is nuanced and varies tremendously across people, situations, and environments. A child may learn to initiate interaction by saying “Hello, my name is Max” to any and all people when he walks into a room. Immediately some concerns arise. If Max walks out to go to the bathroom and reenters the room, does he then say “Hello, my name is Max” to everyone again? If he is in the company of family or an already familiar person, does he use the same greeting? I’ve seen all of these scenarios plus some other novel variations. The common theme is overgeneralization of the skill. There is also the problem of conceptualizing social interaction.
Consider the motivation to interact with others from the perspective of a child on the spectrum. Verbal communication may be aversive because social initiation/interaction has not been paired with reinforcement, a deficit in functional communication targets, or a combination of these confounds. Saying “Hello my name is Max” may very well be a mastered skill, however the function of the behavior (talking to others) may simply serve the purpose of escaping the situation (if Max says hello he gets to leave the room and engage in a preferred activity). Teaching socialization skills during physical activity can help in developing not only the verbal communication and language targets, but in concept formation as well.
When working with a group of students it is necessary to first develop individual skills. Using a parallel play model, students can be taught activities alongside one another without having to learn interactive skills immediately. With groups, there tends to be a range of physical, cognitive, and emotional abilities. Beginning with the social aspect of a fitness program can delay progress in lower-functioning individuals. In a situation where a highly skilled, highly motivated child is placed with a lower skilled, low motivated partner, neither one is receiving optimal benefit from the activity. The higher functioning individual may become frustrated with the slower pace of the other, and the low functioning child struggles to complete the activity, engages in a maladaptive behavior (such as aggression or escaping), and essentially nobody learns or achieves anything.
Beginning with the achievement of prerequisite skills is necessary to have a common physical ability among a group. Looking at basic physical attributes, children (and everyone for that matter, but that is a separate article) should be able to perform pushing, pulling, bending, rotational, and locomotion. For groups these skills are best taught as individual targets but can be chained together for the purposes of fun, creativity, and sequencing. Obstacle-courses are fantastic for building the skill sets necessary for peer play. In addition to learning and practicing one skill after another, students are working “independently together” throughout the activity. The added skills of attending, waiting, focus, and timing are practically built in to this type of system.
An obstacle course that encompasses all the major gross motor patterns could include hops, bear walks, swinging a rope back and forth, throwing a ball, hopping, and running back to the start line. In this scenario, each child is able to develop the skill(s) at his/her own pace. Once these basic skills are mastered, including a partner exercise, such as throwing a light medicine ball back and forth, or even handing the ball off to one another can be incorporated into the activity. The socialization component is nearly automatic. The secondary skills involved in the obstacle course (attending, focus, and listening) have the opportunity to generalize to the tandem exercise.
When children are active and engaged, the finite aspects of socialization (gestures, intention, and contingent responding) become more apparent. As opposed to rote memorization of dialogue, socialization training during exercise includes a dynamic component. The situation is constantly changing, even during a simple game of catch, which requires both passing and receiving the ball. Of course, socialization training across environments, particularly the home and classroom is necessary from the standpoint of optimal development and acquisition.
Both physical fitness and social interaction are vital aspects of human development and well-being. Either is a significant predictor of overall well-being in both child- and adulthood. Establishing these skills, and the motivation to engage in activities that combine the two, early is pivotal to establishing long-term success. As both are important, there is no cutoff point at which these abilities cannot be taught and incorporated appropriately into an education program. Socialization is how we interact with others and enrich our lives. Fitness allows us to live uninterrupted from the problems created by a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle and opens up new opportunities from vocational to the community. Remember, exercise is something we do. Fitness is something we live.© Eric Chessen