By Sarah Sherwood, Director of SEN at LVS Oxford and LVS Hassocks
A focus on social and emotional wellbeing is a key area in which schools can enhance the development of students with autism, with access to outdoor space for sport and exercise something that can be of huge benefit.
Studies have shown…
A number of studies have found that physical exercise reduces the levels of cortisol in the body. The adrenaline rush that causes the fight/flight/freeze response in autistic individuals is maintained if the individual has high cortisol levels, therefore extending the period of behaviours of concern. This, along with the other more obvious health benefits, such as maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the likelihood of depression, indicates that regular physical exercise should be a component part of any programme for an individual with ASD.
Just 20 minutes or more of aerobic exercise at least 3 times a week can result in a decrease of stereotypic behaviours and other behaviours of concern. A prime example of this is Marcus, 15, at LVS Oxford. He has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and requires regular movement breaks to aid his concentration in lessons, using the outdoor trampoline and trim trail during these breaks. He also plays football, rugby, hockey, tennis, javelin and badminton. Marcus said: "Sport helps me feel calmer and better able to focus on my studies. I really enjoy all the sports we do in school."
Taking on the sporting challenge
Participation in physical exercise may be a challenge for some individuals with ASD due to motor planning difficulties, low motivation and sensory differences all of which impact on ability to participate. However, skills for physical education can be taught in the same way that any new skill is taught, by breaking it down into smaller parts and rewarding successful achievement of each component. At LVS Oxford and LVS Hassocks, both schools for students with autism, staff adopt this approach along with other autism strategies to ensure each individual is able to participate.
What schools can do
For some activities, visuals are used to indicate where a student should stand, or larger balls or bats are used to ensure success when co-ordination may be a challenge. The sessions are broken down for students (e.g. warm up, individual skills practice, pack away equipment), so they can monitor their progress through the activity. Staff use clear, precise language and allow extra processing time for students due to the additional demands of the session. A range of physical activities are offered at the schools and for those that do not enjoy team games, swimming, running and trips to the gym are offered as they require fewer social cues.
Sports Day allows students to try different things, with the activities catering for varying abilities. Interschool events are also valuable in offering students opportunities to compete against other young people with similar challenges to themselves, raising the confidence and self-esteem of participants.
A future through sport?
For those with a real passion for sport, it can even provide a focus for future careers. LVS Oxford helped Ben secure a work placement at a local gym where he supported members with their personal exercise programmes and helped staff with the day-to-day running of the gym. Ben said: “My work experience helped me learn about the gym equipment and the exercise programmes offered. I’m now working hard on my maths, English and other subjects so I can gain qualifications and hopefully get an apprenticeship in a gym or a place on a sports course at college.”
Parents and carers speak positively about the ways in which staff promote positive behaviour. One said "staff are very caring, they talk to students positively and handle things fairly"