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Physical Education for Students on the Autism Spectrum #NAC15

Posted Nov 29 2011 8:00am

I’m finally getting back to my notes from the National Autism Conference . After the great afternoon spent learning about motor planning , I was more than ready to hear this presentation on physical education the following morning.

The speaker was Garth Tymeson, a Professor of Adapted Physical Education in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin – Lacrosse. Initially, the session was advertised as being on adapted physical education, but Dr. Tymeson revised it to the broader topic of “Preparing for an Active and Healthy Lifestyle in the Community.”

Following are some of the notes that I took during his presentation:

Collaboration Between Teachers and Parents

The starting point for any physical education program is the goals, and the goals should reflect the functional skills we want to see them using in the community.

In order to create goals that will mean something for the student after they leave school (for the day or for good), there must be collaboration between teachers and parents. Teachers must find out what parents what their kids to be able to do.

So, what do parents was their kids to do? Parental goals for physical education usually include things such as - socialization
- learning basic skills
- acquiring functional physical fitness
- finding things that provide success and enjoyment
- having a positive self-concept, reduced anxiety and frustration

More specifically, parents most often want their kids to learn to - ride a bike
- swim
- play individual sports
- know the basics for sports of interest
- understand how to use exercise equipment

His main point was that the goals should reflect these things. One of the most useful things a student can learn is how to utilize fitness equipment and set goals and routines for themselves related to ongoing physical fitness. That is far more helpful than knowing how to play dodgeball.

Program/Class Challenges

Another important area to look at is what is preventing a child from achieving in physical education and deriving these benefits. Is it related to social communication difficulties? Physical/motor issues? Staff?

Dr. Tymeson strongly recommended that kids with ASD who are in regular PE classes have an assessment done by an adapted PE teacher to determine what physical skills they need to develop. They may need specially designed instruction, possibly in a smaller group, and/or the regular PE teacher may need ongoing consultation on adapting the class for the student.

Sample Assessment Tools
Test of Gross Motor Development 2 (TGMD-2)
Brockport Physical Fitness Test
Peabody Developmental Motor Scales 2 (PDMS-2)
Adapted Physical Education Assessment Scale (APEAS II)

He also pointed out that adapted physical education does not have to be all or nothing. A student may be able to participate in the regular class but need an extra session each week to work on specific skills.

I remember during first grade that we would have the physical education teacher let us know what sport or skill was going to be introduced next. Since the school insisted that they were not able to provide any pre-teaching due to the lack of available time and staff, we could at least find books related to that topic at the library and help our son gain some familiarity with what was coming.

Considerations for Students

In the Adapted PE program at the University of Wisconsin, learning management and instructional techniques is considered to be just as important as the rest of the curriculum. The focus is on how to make things predictable and successful for the students, and they are taught to use things such as - picture and communication boards
- lanyards with laminated icons in place of the usual whistle
- schedule boards
- visual aids
- social stories
- smart boards and iPads

For kids at home, he strongly recommends getting them up and moving and playing outside as much as possible. The use of active video games, such as the Xbox Kinect or certain games on the Wii (like Outdoor Challenge, Dance Dance Revolution, or Wii Fit), can also be very helpful in motivating kids to engage in physical activity.

During the break, I asked Dr. Tymeson about my son’s biggest challenge, which is competition. He can make anything into a competition, even an individual sport.

His response was to teach my son that there are other ways besides winning to have success are improvement and accomplishment. Practical suggestions might be giving him a pedometer or heart rate monitor and helping him set a target so that he can focus the competitive aspect on himself.

IDEA requirements for Physical Education

Under IDEA, physical education is a required service, not a related service or therapy. A variety of placements should be available and placement should be made based on an assessment of the unique needs of each student.

Dr. Tymeson’s advice is to “Get it on the IEP and KEEP IT THERE.” I would say this is much easier said than done.

I did ask for an assessment by an adapted PE teacher and was told no because the team feels he does not have gross motor issues and that his problems in PE are related to his autism and could be addressed by the autism consultant. This seems to be a reflexive no on the school’s part, especially since he has not had any formal evaluation of his gross motor skills in well over 4 years, but I chose not to pursue it since the teacher he was assigned for PE this year is one who works very well with him and with the rest of the team.

I would be greatly interested in hearing if any of you have had success with convincing your school district to pay attention to this area of your child’s education, especially with regards to accommodations and specially designed instruction.

Recommended Reading

Physical Education (PE) & Adapted Physical Education (APE) on

Adapted Physical Education and Sport – 5th Edition , Edited by J. Winnick

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