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7 Tips for a Successful PE Experience for a Child with Autism

It is a Thursday afternoon.  You have about 24 third graders coming to your gym for 45 minutes with all of them ready to go and needing your attention.  You teach alone, you do not have any support in your classroom for all of these active children.  You want to give each of them the best Physical Education experience possible.  You want them to leave your class sweaty, happy and loving to move.  Every child needs help to become successful in PE but there is one child in particular, in your class, that needs more attention than most children.  You have a child with Autism that has trouble with social cues, motor skills and is fixated on trains at the moment.  Your job is to try your hardest to give every child a successful experience in PE but what can you do for a child who has Autism and the gym is a very difficult space for them?  Here are a few tips I have learned over my career that have helped give successful PE experiences to students with Autism.

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  1.  Noise-noise can be a huge deterrent and make a child with Autism very upset. Gyms are very noisy.  Allow them to wear noise canceling headphones.  Non-expensive headphones, I use the ones from our Wonderlab.  They have helped several students become less overwhelmed and they are able to focus better.
  2. Fixations-Children with Autism can become preoccupied with various activities, school subjects or objects.  How can you re-focus the student to work on your planned activity?  Not sure, you can.  Use their fixation to your advantage.  If your student is wanting to be a train then turn your warm up into a train running on train tracks and have the child follow the “train tracks” around the gym.  Be creative in the moment.  Fixations do change, be ready to change with them.
  3. Social Cues-social cues are challenging and can be tough in PE.  You will need to offer constant guidance and support. Every situation is different and evolving in PE. Be there for the child and be ready to help them understand what is going on in the world around them.
  4. Motor Skills-motor skills can be delayed in a child with Autism.  Set your expectations differently if your student is struggling. For example, I used a balloon racquet and giant shuttle when teaching badminton to a student with Autism.  We used a mini net and took out scoring.  Our goal was to hit the shuttle once, I think we ended up with 10 times, yay. 
  5. Planning-be ready before the student comes to class.  Have an individual plan ready even if it is small. You never know what the day will bring for your student. Being ready will create confidence and less chaos for you and your student.
  6. Frustration-you can have the best lesson planned and all kinds adaptations in place for the child with Autism and then you find out during the lesson that none of it is working.  This causes frustration for you and for the student with Autism.  It is okay, to be frustrated, you worked hard.  It is okay for the child with Autism to be frustrated, they might be confused or sad.  Take a second to step back and take a breath and clear your mind and you will most likely come up with a solution that works on the spot. 
  7. Support-if have tried everything and are still not having success with the child with Autism reach out for support.  Ask their homeroom teachers for help.  See what is working in their class that maybe you can transfer over to the PE class.   Ask counselors at your school if they have ideas.  Ask any special resource teacher if they could come observe and give you some ideas.  I have also asked parents for ideas and how they can help me. Remember you are not failing as a teacher if you need to ask for help.  You are making yourself a stronger and more enriched teacher. The child with Autism will also benefit and have a more successful experience with you. 

I hope these quick tips are useful for you. Every child is different. Remember to be kind, be supportive, be patient.  Most importantly have a silly, creative, fun side and your child with autism and your 23 other students will have success in your class.  

Related Articles:
Unified PE: A Choice Not a Mandate By Maria Corte
Adapting to Distance Learning for Adapted Physical Educators By Megan McCollom
Differentiation in PE: Being Responsive to Our Students’ Needs By Carolyn Temertzoglou

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  • Laura Hunt

    Laura Hunt is currently a Master Teacher at Falk Laboratory School. She is the Athletic Director for Middle School sports and teaches K-5 Physical Education. Some initiatives she has taken over the years include, starting various sports teams, developing/creating Family Fun Fitness Nights, creating a large community field day for the entire school with students from K-8 on the various teams together, and creating a one-on-one Push-In Program for struggling PE students K-5.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks Laura for such a insightful article-this is sure to be very helpful to so many of our colleagues!
    I had one other tip to add to yours that would be helpful as well. Use visuals. Children with autism are visual learners and this strategy will only make instruction more clear and concise for everyone. And keeping things predictable usually helps alleviate some of the stress’
    Have a great rest of the year and thanks again for sharing your experience and knowledge with others!
    Barbara Meleney
    NC-Adapted Physical Education-Advisory Council (we have a good resource here called “PE for Students with Autism”)

  2. Thank you. Yes, I agree as well. Visual cues and visual demonstrations help many students not just children with autism.

  3. As a parent of a child with autism, I truly appreciate this article and the tips shared for supporting children with autism in PE classes. It can be challenging for both teachers and students when the gym is a difficult space for a child with autism. I particularly liked the tip about using their fixations to your advantage, and the reminder to reach out for support when needed. It takes a village to help children with autism thrive, and I’m grateful for teachers who are willing to put in the extra effort to make that happen. I’ll definitely be sharing this article with my son’s team of support worker for autism.

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