Physical Education for Students With Autism

Written by rebecca deluccia-reinstein
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Physical Education for Students With Autism
Physical education for students with autism includes setting goals for them and modifying what you teach to meet their needs. (Balls image by captainflag from

Students with autism are entitled to the same physical education as typically developed children. Delays in development prompt U.S. schools to make adaptations or provide professional support as required by the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). Proven techniques for teaching physical education to children with autism, such as positive reinforcement, assist the learning process. Aggressive students require additional attention and support. Each student with autism needs different goals and strategies depending on the level of the disability and other problematic characteristics such as aggressive or obsessive behaviours.


All students with autism must receive physical education, according to the U.S. Department of Education. IDEA ensures that students with autism will take part in physical education activities with fellow students regardless of the level of their developmental delays. Children with autism often lack control of the large muscles of the body, which interferes with standard physical education goals. The muscular delay prevents participation in activities with other students such as running and team sports. An autistic student with physical education goals outlined in an Individualized Education Program receives modifications from the school, including alterations to the program and specialised one-on-one help from a professional therapist.

Challenges and Strategies

Autistic children possess an array of characteristics that interfere with physical education participation. Children with autism fixate on parts of objects and shut out the environment, causing an inability to follow directions such as "throw the ball." For example, a child with autism sits and spins the ball instead of throwing or kicking it back to his peer. Autism also causes speech, communication and social delays, according to the 4th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These impairments interfere with the willingness to comply with physical education requirements. For example, an autistic student expected to engage in socially appropriate interactions catches the ball from a peer, then runs away with it instead throwing it back. Positive reinforcement encourages autistic students to participate and sets an expectation for future tasks, according to a report on the News for Parents website. Reward the student for performing the physical activity with praise, a treat or favourite toy.


Physical education goals for students with autism should vary depending on the child's capabilities and needs. The ultimate objectives for students with behaviour problems include elimination of aggressive or negative actions and inclusion with classmates. Students with motor delays can work toward improving muscle tone and basic physical education tasks such as catching and throwing a playground ball. IDEA aims to ensure that clear PE goals for an autistic student are set forth in the Individualized Education Program that's determined by input from his parents, educators and therapists.


Time, consistency of instruction and proper staffing are important factors to consider when teaching physical education to a student with autism. Altering the behaviours of the child and achieving her goals require extra staff, according to IDEA and the child's IEP. For example, a highly distracted student needs constant redirection, which can't occur in an understaffed physical education environment. Additionally, staff members unfamiliar with autism need training. Teachers and staff must know how to deal with autism, both generally and on the individual level. For example, a teacher's assistant must learn the proper response to a child's aggressive outburst during team sports, which may be different for each student. Over time, the consistent actions of teachers and staff alter the behaviour of an autistic student exhibiting signs of aggression, according to research published in 2003 in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance.


Autistic students with significant aversions or sensitivities need special accommodations. Overstimulation, distraction and discomfort hinder the learning process. For example, an autistic child sensitive to loud noises experiences discomfort in a gymnasium full of loud children. A physical education room with large windows distracts students with autism. Too many options or too much equipment in the physical education room overstimulates and distracts an autistic child. Observe the child in the environment and make changes conducive to learning.

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