You’re about to teach your athlete a new exercise. Are they ready? Do they know where to start? Do you know what labels to use for the exercise? How much prompting they’ll need? What proper technique will be?

Coaching individuals with autism and related special needs requires a plan. We need to know the current baseline ability for the exercise. We need to know if a secondary reinforcer is required. We also need to set the environment up for success. And that brings us to defining the environment.

The environment is everything surrounding the athlete. It includes the space and how it is set up, the visual cues (if any), the equipment, the lighting, the sounds, and the interaction between coach and athlete.

When the environment is conducive to our autism athlete succeeding, there are accountabilities that have been undertaken.

  1. The environment is calm, safe, and free as possible of distractions
  2. The athlete knows the space (for breaks and focused activity/exercise)
  3. Visual icons are visible and accessible
  4. The equipment to be used is within reach
  5. Contingencies are clear and understood

One of the biggest differences between fitness programming for the neurotypical/general population and those with autism/neurodiverse is the level of motivation or adaptive functioning (the “A” in our PAC Profile). If we’re using the PAC Profile approach, low levels of adaptive functioning begin to diminish within a few sessions.


When taking a best practices approach to fitness and adapted PE programming, a typical outcome is a decline in anxiety and off-task behavior over the course of the first few sessions. This has everything to do with the PAC Profile approach meeting each of the 3 skill sets;

Physical: Providing the appropriate progression or regression of each exercise in accordance with the athlete’s current ability level.

Adaptive: Using positive behavior support, choice, and contingencies to fast-track the reinforcing qualities of each exercise and the fitness session in general.

Cognitive: Coaching and cuing (along with providing visual supports as needed).

There’s the general approach and the specifics within a set of a particular exercise. How we approach each set is dependent on the same PAC skills. We can specify as necessary. If our athlete is completely independent with the exercise, we can hang back, watch, and provide less structured support. If it is a particularly aversive exercise, we may need to go full structure mode and provide an ongoing narrative for the athlete.

“Okay Kaitlin, first you’ve got six rope swings, then you can take a one minute break.”

We may use this sentence to get our athlete situated and remind them of what’s coming up next. We use it to establish the expectation. First the swings, then the break. We may even remind the athlete of how many reps she has before completing the set.

These micro-steps within the set glue everything together and can be the difference between success and not during a session. Having a clear understanding of physical, adaptive, and cognitive abilities for each exercise enables us to take the right steps.

The video below features one of our young adult ASD athletes and highlights specific points where we can make a big difference in the quality of movement and their experience during the session.