Strategies for Teaching Students with Autism in Physical Education

By Houston-Wilson, Cathy; Lieberman, Lauren J. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, August 2003 | Go to article overview
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Strategies for Teaching Students with Autism in Physical Education


Houston-Wilson, Cathy, Lieberman, Lauren J., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Ashley is a 10-year-old third grader at Liberty Elementary School. She enjoys swimming, basketball, and dancing to Britney Spears. Ashley is much like any child her age, except she has autism. Her physical education teacher Mr. Stutz, has been working with Ashley in his inclusive physical education class for the past three years. She came to him with a variety of behavioral, communication, and attention problems, yet with high motor skills. Ashley spoke very little, preferred playing alone, and had a short attention span. When the activity was something she did not want to do, she was aggressive and sometimes ran away. It took a lot of trial and error before Mr. Stutz was able figure out how to accommodate Ashley, because he had never taught a child with autism. He soon learned new strategies and began participating in special education planning meetings with Ashley's parents, teachers, and special education consultants.

Ashley can now participate in most activities. Mr. Stutz trained several peer tutors to assist her, and they are able to understand Ashley's needs very well. The class routines are consistent, and when the routine does change she is given plenty of warning ahead of time. Time-outs are a last resort, and he has not had to use a time out in over a year Mr. Stutz created a reward program in which Ashley receives checks for appropriate behavior and participation during class. When she accumulates 20 checks, she is rewarded with one-on-one basketball time with Mr. Stutz, which Ashley really enjoys. Getting to this point has taken a long time, but it is worth it, because Ashley is able to participate in her inclusive physical education class.

Mr. Stutz is not alone in his desire to obtain more information about children with disabilities, including autism. As more and more students with disabilities are included in general physical education classes, physical educators struggle with appropriate teaching strategies that will accommodate unique needs. Autism in particular presents challenges that may baffle even the most seasoned teacher.

Autism Defined

Federal legislation (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, 1997) defines autism as a severe and chronic developmental disability that affects a person's communication and behavior. Autism is diagnosed based on the behaviors that a child exhibits during early development (usually before the age of three). A child with autism usually has difficulties in four general areas:

* Speech, language, and communication

* Relating to people, objects, and events

* Responses to sensory stimuli

* Developmental discrepancies

Autism is one of the disabilities in the Pervasive Developmental Disorders category, also known as PDD. Other forms of PDD include PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (NOS), Asperger's Syndrome, and Rett's Syndrome (Auxter, Pyfer, & Huettig, 2001). Table 1 describes the diagnostic criteria lot individuals with autism.

Although students with autism may differ considerably in their behavior, their learning and cognitive processes tend to be somewhat predictable and notably different from persons with other types of developmental disabilities. As mentioned above, a defining characteristic of students with autism involves their ability to process information. Janzen (1996) identified 10 processing and response problems that are inherent in students with autism and interfere with their learning. While these processing and response difficulties create instructional problems, they do provide teachers with an understanding of how students with autism learn. Table 2 identifies each of the processing and response problems noted by Janzen (1996) and describes them as well as possible behavioral responses that may be seen in physical education. As noted in table 2, students with autism might display a variety of inappropriate responses to tasks as a result of sensory overload, inability to focus on relevant information, lack of visual cues, and the inability to generate new responses to instructor requests.

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