“Self-esteem” is a term often tossed around in programs for the autism population. A brochure claims that this sport/activity/service

“Builds confidence and self-esteem”

“Aids in developing self-esteem”

And they very well might. But if you know my writing you’re aware of the need to define things so that we’re not doing cognitive fill-in-the-blanks during discussion time. These are the situations where one of us says a word and the other nods and we’re about 76% sure we know what the other person is talking about…maybe.

This is especially true when talking about feel-good stuff; “Confidence,” “Development,” “Socialization,” “Core strength,” All sort of loose, general terms that need further explanation and defining when talking about each individual and how that skill will play out in their life.

Having a fully defined idea of “self-esteem” enables us to both incorporate strategies in our fitness sessions to support its development and have some way of measuring an increase in this attribute. For our non-verbal athletes with ASD, observing or categorizing self-esteem may seem tricky, if not all-out impossible. But if we have a definition that leads to observable outcomes, it makes the process easier.

I would argue that “self-esteem” in the observable sense would include the following traits;

  • Initiation of activities
  • Frequent response to choice/options
  • Requesting (verbally or otherwise) specific exercises or activities
  • Clear signals of elevated mood when performing exercises (general or specific) including smiling or increased eye contact with instructor

For our verbal athletes with autism, we can broaden the definition to include;

  • Affirmations of self or specific abilities (“I did eight squats!“)
  • Positive self-talk during exercise performance
  • Requests for exercise (general or specific) in non-gym/exercise environments

Exercise is unique in that it provides the individual with an immediate sense of completion and accomplishment. The athlete performs the 10 push throws with a medicine ball, which is a direct consequence of their participation. Behavior-specific praise, one of the fundamental practices in Autism Fitness, can be used during and immediately after a target exercise.

We often observe an increase in on-task or focused behavior within the first few sessions following the firstĀ  PAC Profile Assessment day. As the athlete becomes more familiar with each exercise and begins to understand the expectation for performance, they may gravitate towards particular exercises demonstrating a preference.

While not making absurd assumptions about what is going on cognitively and emotionally for the athlete (simply because we don’t know their “inner” dialogue), observing exercise preference does tell us that something is reinforcing about that particular exercise. Associating self-esteem with initiation is not a far reach. If self-esteem can be at least partially defined by an understanding that one is capable of completing a task independently, that initiation/request to do a squat, or hurdle steps, or Sandbell slams can represent the internal state of knowing oneself to be capable.

In delivering appropriate strength programs for our athlete with autism, we create both short and long-term opportunities to develop skills that improve quality of life. An increased sense of autonomy derived from the actual completion of target goals is directly related to an improved consideration of the self. Ultimately, this can be simplified as giving the individual an opportunity “to be good at something that is clearing benefitting them and feels good.”

A healthy sense of self cannot be justifiably relegated to the neurotypical population or those individuals (neurotypical or special needs) who participate in sports. By taking a more general approach to physical activity through strength and motor-skill development, we create a universally inclusive model that meets our athletes where they are at and sets goals appropriate to their current levels of physical, adaptive, and cognitive abilities.

When our athletes become stronger, their movements improve, and they are clearly enjoying physical activity, some aspect of self-esteem is likely close. As coaches, instructors, and deliverers of exercise programs, we have a unique place in building not only physical skills that last, but a new sense of self for our athletes with autism.