“Functional” fitness is a term that has trickled down from its origins in the mid-1990’s to common exercise parlance today. While the actual definition can and is regularly questioned (always helpful when you want objectivity), let’s consider what it usually refers to and what it means for training the neurodiverse athlete.

A level of complexity has always been associated with the term “functional exercise.” Somehow, the logic goes, the more advanced the exercise, the more it will  carry over to activities of daily living. Time and trial demonstrate, both in research and practice, that the inverse is true. Standing on one leg while using the opposite hand to draw figure 8’s is somehow sold as ‘functional’ or ‘balance’ training. There’s an almost mystical reverence for “crossing midline,” the act of an arm or leg crossing to the opposite side of the body. And while it may demonstrate some measure of ankle stability, it largely misses the realm of increasing performance when discussing life movements.

I categorically refer to most of these exercises as “Any which way but strong.

Strength is going to be the biggest factor in developing meaningful physical skills; those that translate to ADLs, injury prevention, and quality of life for the autism, or any population. Are they the only exercises we need to incorporate? No. But they should come first. Strength is necessary to build stability, motor planning, and, yes, cardiovascular fitness for the autism population.

More complex does not equal more muscle recruitment or activation. It just means the exercise requires more…planning, I suppose.

So where did the whole ‘functional’ label gain so much credence? The short version of the story is that, in a sweeping wave of over-generalization, basic strength training was newly considered ‘non-functional’ and a hinderance to general movement patterns. It became the arch-nemesis of the new ‘functional’ training. This is, admittedly, a condensed version of part of the story.

For the autism population, there still exists a gap in understanding and applying best practices as they relate to fitness. There are a number of sport-specific, martial arts, running, yoga, and other activities targeted for children and teens with autism. To each we must pose the following questions;

  1. Does the program  account for common deficits in strength and stability that can inhibit more complex movement skills?
  2. Is the program scalable in supporting the development of these abilities? 

Think of squatting, pushing, pulling, carrying, and crawling as the foundation of movement. If these skills are left under-developed, it will be difficult to build advanced skills. Balancing on the stability ball without sufficient strength does not build appreciable balancing skills. It simply won’t generalize to other situations as advertised.

I had a great conversation with one of our Autism Fitness Certification hosts last year.

“I saw you have your athlete carrying a heavy sandbag. What do you have them do that for?”

“To get them better at carrying heavy stuff.” 

Him, laughing, “It’s that simple?” 


Now don’t mistake simple with easy. If you’re delivering fitness programs to adults or teens with autism, you know how challenging basic movement patterns can be. Due to both the underlying physical and proprioceptive deficits, combined with what is often an inactive lifestyle, many of our athletes with ASD have significant difficulty performing a “basic” squat or overhead press.

When we look at exercise selection for adults with autism and related neurodiversities, we have to identify the movement skills that will most reliably generalize to activities of daily living. Fortunately, there are no autism-specific exercises, there’s a good historical (and current) reference for these types of exercises. Turns out, squats, presses, pulls, and carries. Yes, those heavy carries that get our athletes better at carrying heavy stuff.

As a side note, it still mystifies me that so many “special needs” exercise programs miss strength training entirely. I’m still not entirely certain where this comes from.

There’s the issue of relying on complex or machine-based exercises.   Are machine-based exercises bad? Not necessarily, however the amount of situations in which we would utilize them for the autism population is practically zero. Machine-based strength training developed out of bodybuilding as an answer to isolating muscles. There are three main problems with machine-based training for the autism/neurodiverse population;

  1. Machine-based training does not account for individual difference in movement (range of motion, flexibility, etc.)
  2. Machine-based training largely inhibits trunk/core stability during performance as the machine takes on this function
  3. Machine-based training typically isolates a muscle or small group of muscles where we want a greater multi-joint performance 

Consider also the principle of pre-requisite skills. In academic situations the pre-requisite might be learning addition before multiplication. In life skills it may be cutting the onion before learning to make an entire meal. In exercise it is establishing strong, stable bilateral (two feet on the floor) patterns before progressing to unilateral variations.

During a podcast recording , Greg Austin (founder of Inclusive Fitness) and I were discussing the terminology of ‘functional’ fitness. Given the fact that it now means who-knows-what in both professional and general circles, I think we need new, untarnished terminology. I offer the label of “Life Skill Movements” for what we do in our Autism Fitness programming. The way we strengthen and enhance physical ability will have the highest potential to transfer beyond that activity itself; it generalizes where needed the most.

A label is only as good as what you can do with it. Functional is a label. Stretching is a label. Exercise is a label. The  question is “What do we mean by that?” followed by its equally precious “What do we do about it?” What we do about both inactivity among the autism population and movement programming is approach both from a needs-based perspective. Our athletes often have strength and stability deficits. Enhancing strength will serve as a foundation for all other movement abilities. That foundation is built on basic push/pull/squat/crawl/carry movement patterns. We progress not in arbitrary time frames, but when the athlete demonstrates mastery over a skill.

Great coaches have great filters; the ability to see an exercise, a method, and practice, and incorporate, reject, or modify it based on the needs of the individual/athlete. So what, in actuality, will a program require to enhance strength, stability, and motor planning for adults and teens with ASD? Well, that’s what we made a whole Certification about.

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