An expert is going to see things non-experts don’t. That is part of being an expert; having a carefully calibrated and dialed-in lens for the little things that make a difference. These little things exist in all fields of practice from archaeology (which I just misspelled three times before doing a search) to architecture (misspelled once) and many other areas of practice that don’t begin with “ar.” In fitness, the little things can be exercise selection and performance (which are actually big things but we’ll get to that).

I’ve concluded that, much in the way of the mainstream fitness industry, it is an idealistic goal to eradicate or prevent poor practices from happening. We see it all the time (and yes, we make fun of it). And much of it is not subjective. Regardless of how someone feels about x exercise being performed by x individual being coached by x trainer, it is doing the thing that it is supposed to do or not. It’s beneficial or harmful (or inconsequential) for the athlete or not. It’s loading or rotating the spine in a healthy pattern or its not.

No matter how many likes. No matter how many “Great jobs!,” a program is built around the needs and abilities of an athlete or it’s not. Is there a gray area here? Certainly. And it does not mean that every set and repetition needs to be perfect (they never are). Nor does it mean that an errant hurdle step is going to result in a leg flying off.

What’s there to get is that programming matters. Exercise selection matters. Coaching matters.

We have three variables in successful fitness programming. Now, these can be applied to general and athletic/sport- or activity-specific populations, but, given what I do for a living, I’m applying it directly to the autism/special needs population. Because this is Autism Fitness. Duh.

Variable one is intention. And the intention is usually good. “I want to bring fitness to the autism population!” “I want to run group fitness programs for individuals with special needs!” “I want to help teens with autism move better!” Some variation of this. And that’s intention. And intention here is laudable. Not many professionals are at this stage of intention.

Variable two is/are the exercises, or, exercise selection. What exercises are you choosing?  Are there any contraindications? Are these a bunch of exercises that you know or is this based on an understanding of movement qualities in general and how they apply to a specific individual?

I recognize that this may seem prohibitive; We should all be able to choose how we want to move and exercises/activities that feel good. It’s like roping off a playground and saying you can only play on the parts of the jungle gym that you’re “good at.” So we have to separate the two; free play is free play (whatever that may be) and fitness training is fitness training with more, pun absolutely intended, gravity to it.

Variable three is execution. How are these exercises being taught/coached? Are there appropriate progressions and regressions for each individual?

That athlete you have with ASD is really pedaling hard on the stationary bike! But don’t they sit all day? Do we want them seated for 8-10 minutes out of a 50-minute session? Do we want to continue to shorten hip flexors and invite spinal flexion in an individual with limited trunk stability? If you’re new to all this, you don’t have to know it. If you’re a professional, sorry, you do. Because it’s one of those “little” things that will separate effective programming from whatever we want to call ineffective programming so nobody gets offended because, of course, that’s the worst possible case scenario.

So there’s that. Or those, rather. Those three variables; Intention, Exercises, Execution.

With the autism population comes a wondrous world of compensatory movement patterns and deficits in strength, stability, and motor planning. It is rare that I perform a PAC Profile Assessment and don’t see these issues. With respect to training protocols and programming, the pervasiveness of a deficit is less of a constraint if we know how to effectively address it. There’s no “throwing exercise” at a movement problem and the alleviation of the underlying issue simply by exposure. That’s magic. We don’t do magic.

When we discuss variable two (exercise selection) there is a balance between quantity and quality. Effective coaching is filtering. You know 254 exercises. You usually use some variation of 8-10. That’s filtering. Knowing what your athlete needs based on the presentation of physical attributes. Which, while it may seem outlandish (I was about to write sound outlandish but this is text), variety is just variety.

I’ve observed along my now nearly two-decade career that it takes exponentially more practice and repetition for our athletes with autism to independently master an exercise, meaning they don’t need additional prompting or cuing to complete a press or band row or bear walk to a level of competence. Maybe I’m a wholly ineffective coach, or maybe it’s the underlying neurological, neuro-muscular, and/or gross motor issues. Either one, but it takes longer than for neurotypical individuals.

It appears to be the case that my experience with my athletes is not unique, as evidenced by the feedback, videos, and research performed by our Autism Fitness Certified Pros with their own athletes. If this is true, there’s certainly a case against unnecessary (misspelled twice) variety in programming for the ASD populaton. It detracts from mastering the skills we deemed important. Again, someone’s face isn’t going to fall off from doing 14 different exercises during a session, but it is likely to impede mastery given there’s less practice with each movement.

Execution is the art/practice of coaching. And using the term “art” in a sentence with “coaching” reads as pretentious and I don’t care and I welcome the rebuttal (misspelled five times) to it. These skills require experience. When you know what you’re looking at, you know that you know because you’ve seen it before enough times to identify it. Like a botanist (misspelled thrice) who knows the other strains of “poison” that aren’t ivy. They’ve been there, seen that. avoided ankle contact with that.

Suffice to say there are no “bad” exercises but there are some that will be an almost automatic contraindication for certain populations. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) we have the practice of anticipatory prompting, which is essentially moving in and providing additional guidance or cuing for an individual who is more-than-likely to err on a particular step of a task. We’ve developed an enhanced sense of the probable outcome. So we provide a bridge to success.

What’s important here (I’m also trying to figure out what’s not important here), but what’s important here is that the athlete needs to know practically none of this but the instructor/coach needs to know everything. That’s variables 1, 2, and 3 working in conjunction. Intention. Exercise Selection. Programming.

This is not an argument on behalf of absolute perfection (congrats, does not exist in fitness/exercise), or such exacting standards that they are unrealistic, unattainable, or prohibitive within a reasonable amount of time with an appropriate amount of education and practice (and more education and more practice).

In fact, too strict a standard does a disservice to those who are just starting to learn about and coach fitness programs for the ASD population, particularly parents and family members who do not have a background in exercise or fitness. This is exercise, not pharmacology. Our “exacting” standards can be less exact, save we take ourselves so seriously that we start wearing lab coats (though if it’s neon green I’m totally down).

A useful, practical standard serves as an invitation with a + 1; there are rules and particulars. Wear pants and don’t bring three extra friends. Teach forward hurdle steps before progressing to lateral steps. Nix a heavy carry when form starts breaking down. Don’t do that dumbbell press from the floor that seems to be all the rage in special needs fitness programs right now unless your athlete has a particular need for a reduced range of motion and additional focusing on the triceps.

Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing is the intersection of the three variables, the middle of the Venn diagram.