Programme encourages physical movement amongst people with autism

Programme encourages physical movement amongst people with autism
Get Autism Active programme coordinators from left, Stephen Murphy, of HEalth Action Zone, Dr Susan Crawford, lecturer in sports studies and physical education UCC and Padraig Healy, sports inclusion disabilty officer, Cork Sports PartnershipPicture: Eddie O'Hare

An activity scheme for people with autism is coming to Cork next month with organisers hoping to introduce a nationwide, year-round programme as part of an ‘Autism Aware’ initiative.

Get Autism Active is a physical activity programme aimed at individuals with autism living and working in the community, designed to affect change in the fundamental movement skills.

It encourages running, skipping, catching, balance and coordination to improve the lives of those with autism.

It is part of the Healthy City initiative in Cork which was awarded €99,000 through the Healthy Ireland Fund.

The initiative was developed by Dr Susan Crawford, a lecturer in Sports Studies and Physical Education in University College Cork.

In 1998 at the age of two, her only son Tomás was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder.

Dr Crawford then undertook to learn what she could about the condition and went on to set up an ASD unit attached to a mainstream school in her native Clare.

“Fundamental movement skills are those skills of movement we take for granted in everyday life,” she said.

“These include running, skipping, catching, balance and coordination to mention but a few.

“However, children with autistic spectrum disorder often present with delay or impairment in these skills from infancy,” she explained.

“This can further affect their ability to participate in sport, physical activity, socialise and meet others and enjoy the feelings of wellbeing such participation brings.

Equally, the population on the autistic spectrum are also at risk of developing obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and depression, according to Dr Crawford.

In 2013, Dr Crawford began to explore the use of digital technology and online programmes to help train participants on the spectrum to learn the basic alphabet of movement.

The online programme includes video demonstration of each of 21 skills of movement such as running, catching, throwing and balancing, voice over prompts, a checklist of the breakdown of each skill.

The tutorial also includes pointers to address further teaching and learning such as naming body parts, size and shapes of equipment.

It’s so important to learn the fundamentals of movement,” said Dr Crawford.

“It promotes physical and mental health and there’s also a social element involved which may be missing for some people with autism.

With the support of research grants, the online programme went through a preliminary testing phase last year.

Participants with ASD, parents, teachers and occupational therapists using the programme provided feedback.

This proved both positive and helpful for refining content further.

“We received extremely positive feedback and results which encouraged us to branch out even further,” said Dr Crawford.

“We’ll be doing this once a week and then encouraging parents to just take five minutes a couple of times a week to improve progress,” she added.

Meanwhile, Dr Crawford has submitted a textbook titled “Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Fundamental Movement Skills: A guide to Good Practice” for publication.

She is also writing an online training course to accompany the programme for anyone wishing to become a “Get Autism Active” coach and a separate “Get Autism Aware” online autism awareness certified programme being written for any individuals or businesses wishing to become autism aware.

“We’re hoping to make this and Get Autism Active a nationwide year round initiative,” said Dr Crawford.

“Get Autism Active’ is so important for promoting movement and activity in children on the spectrum while it’s also very important for parents to know if a restaurant or cafe or business is autism aware and friendly.

“Businesses will be able to complete online courses and get an autism aware button on their website, we hope in the very near future and they can complete further initiatives later down the line for an ‘Autism Aware’ flag or something to that effect,” she added.

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