Everyone Deserves a Physical Education: Adaptive Fitness for Autistic Students

The right to inclusive education applies to physical education (PE). Every student has a right to the benefits of exercise—which also has positive effects on stress levels, social skills, and concentration. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity for every 6–17-year-old.)

Reasonable accommodations in PE programs go beyond customizing standard exercises for students whose disabilities affect their legs, arms, hearts, or lungs: accommodations are equally vital for less “physical” disabilities. There are students who find verbal instructions incomprehensible; students who can’t tolerate typical gym noise; and students whose personal “learning frustration” is a bigger challenge than any complicated new exercise.

The rest of today’s post is written by Exercise Connection, makers of the Exercise Buddy app.

The Exercise Connection Team Speaks: Elements of an Effective Physical Program


  • David Geslak, President and Founder of Exercise Connection
  • Amber Pantaleo, Vice President at Exercise Connection
  • “Coach Cam” Lesslie, Adapted Physical Education Specialist at Exercise Connection

We work primarily with individuals on the autism spectrum. When designing inclusive physical activity programs, the following steps help promote a positive learning environment:

  • Set a clear structure and routine.
  • Prepare multiple modalities [i.e., different approaches].
  • Provide specialized instruction for individual learning needs.

Clear Structure

Learning environments designed with clear rules, routines, and procedures (as well as consistent structure) benefit all participants and promote success. With autism, the security of a largely surprise-free routine is extra important.

Multiple Modalities

Since individuals on the autism spectrum may receive sensory feedback differently than the majority, multiple presentation modalities equal more effective instruction. Visual supports are frequently needed and may come in the form of pictures, videos, or demonstrations from instructors and peers.

To further promote a positive learning environment, provide learners with appropriate and multiple opportunities for success. Equipment or activities may need to be modified to decrease the degree of difficulty. For example, where an activity involves throwing and hitting a ball, modifications may include:

  • Moving the thrower closer to the target;
  • Incorporating different ball types; or
  • Providing alternate equipment for striking the ball.

Specialized Instruction

As you get to know your learners, you can provide increasingly individualized support. One common support tool is a social narrative [a story, often in illustrated form, outlining what to expect in a social situation], which can help students prepare to transition in and out of physical education class.

Additional individualized practices can be embedded in the class itself. It helps to prepare students by outlining expectations, especially when the preparation includes positive affirmations. You can open a class by sharing the affirmation, “We will be doing a new activity today. It may not be easy at the start, but I will get better at it. If I am feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, I can take a one-minute break to stay in control of my emotions.” That primes everyone for behavioral expectations that go with the activity. 

“The most rewarding aspect of my job is when my students display intrinsic enjoyment in the skills they need to be physically fit for life. One example is from my time teaching at a mod-severe alternative school [for students with moderate-to-severe] behavioral needs. My staff and I created a biking program that gave students opportunities to engage in physical activity in a manner that outsiders had believed wasn’t achievable. It was incredibly satisfying to show everyone that these students were perfectly capable of performing activities on par with their neurotypical peers.

“All students deserve opportunities to engage with, and enjoy the health benefits of, physical activity in an appropriately designed physical education program. I am tremendously proud to have provided that for my students.” 

–Coach Cam

About Exercise Connection

Our mission is to equip professionals with inclusive strategies to support diverse learners in physical activity and fitness programs. In partnership with the American College of Sports Medicine, we have designed the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate for members of interdisciplinary healthcare teams. Our Visual Exercise System and Exercise Buddy app provide professionals with additional tools for implementing evidence-based practices.

To learn more, please visit ExerciseConnection.com or email talk@exerciseconnection.com.


Additional Resources Recommended by BridgingApps:

Outdoor run-a-thon with youngsters in teal-blue shirts front and center.

Leave a Reply