Teaching Physical Education to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Menear, Kristi Sayers; Smith, Shannon C. | Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Teaching Physical Education to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders


Menear, Kristi Sayers, Smith, Shannon C., Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2007) estimates that one in every 110 children is affected by an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The prevalence of ASDs makes it very likely that every physical education teacher is teaching at least one student with an ASD. This article will provide physical educators with a brief overview of ASDs and suggestions for teaching physical education to students with an ASD.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

A diagnosis of ASD is made using criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association (1994). The criteria for ASDs are described more specifically by one of five diagnoses on the spectrum, which are under pervasive developmental disorders in the DSM IV and are: autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, Rett's disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) (see www.autism-society.org). Table 1 summarizes the common descriptors of individuals with autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, and PDD-NOS. Rett's disorder and childhood disintegrative disorder will not be discussed in detail in this article since those diagnoses are made less frequently.

Most students with an ASD qualify for special education services under the category of "autism" because it is the special education category that best fits their strengths and challenges, and because the description of autism within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is broad enough to cover each of the ASDs. The use of autism as the only reference to an ASD within the IDEA appears to have led to an overuse of references to autism in professional literature and presentations. Many people use autism when they are actually referring to an individual with Asperger's disorder, Rett's disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, or PDD-NOS. Therefore, having a special education qualification of autism does not necessarily mean that the student is diagnosed with autistic disorder according to the DSM IV.

Overuse and inaccurate use of autism is unfortunate because there are significant differences between each of the five possible diagnoses within ASD. When researching the student's disability, physical educators should first review the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and related assessment reports to determine which of the ASDs a student has been diagnosed with as it may not be autism or autistic disorder. Physical educators should also recognize the use of "spectrum" within the umbrella diagnosis of ASD. There is a range of ability levels represented within the ASDs. And, within any one diagnosis on the spectrum there is much variation across individuals with that specific diagnosis. Teachers should research the student's specific diagnosis and then observe the student within the context of physical education to see which diagnostic traits the student has and to what extent.

Physical education

Research has shown that individuals with ASDs have sensory abnormalities (Leekam, Nieto, Libby, Wing, & Gould, 2007). Physical education can often present an overwhelming number of simultaneous sensory challenges for students with ASDs. However, when appropriate strategies are provided to meet the student's physical, cognitive, emotional, and sensory needs, physical education has the possibility of being one of the most positive times of the day for a student with an ASD (Menear & Smith, 2008). Several solutions for sensory challenges that often appear during physical education are listed in Table 2. In addition, there are three considerations that help set up students with an ASD for success upon initial inclusion in physical education.

One of the first considerations when teaching a student with an ASD in physical education is to work with the IEP team to determine what accommodations the student benefits from receiving during other parts of the school day (Menear & Smith, 2008). …

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