Visuals and schedules make the autism world go ’round and that extends beyond the home and classroom. Students can succeed in challenging environments like physical education class when given schedules and visual supports!
Story time – I was responsible for providing weekly physical education class as part of our recreation therapy program. We didn’t have a large gym – it was basically a classroom with nothing in it. I had 6 students at a time (and 4-5 paraprofessionals).
During my first PE class in my first week of my awesome new job, a student came in, sat on a stepping stone and chewed on his shoe off and on for 20 minutes. No amount of encouragement or prompting got him off the floor.
It was this exact moment, I thought “What have I gotten myself into? Did I make a terrible mistake?”
Of course I didn’t, but boy that was an eye opener. Gym class was ever-changing as I worked to make improvements to what was complete incompetence on my part.
The combination of the gym environment and PE skill expectations were a recipe for disaster until I built routines, gave individual schedules and had visual supports coming out of my ears.
My overarching tips are:
- LOTS of structure
- NO downtime (or structure the breaks – get water, walk around the perimeter of gym etc.)
- Be ready to start as soon as they walk in the door
Keep reading to see some ideas and LOTS of pictures of visual supports and schedules that can help provide structure to your PE class (both adapted PE and inclusive PE)!
Challenges in PE Class for students with autism
Well, the most obvious is the noise. Gyms are large cavernous places without much to absorb the sound. Echos. Yelling. Bouncing balls. Basically a sound sensitive person’s worst nightmare.
- Noise canceling headphones
- Ability to ask for a break (out of the gym)
Skill deficits are also a major challenge in PE classes. The inability to perform motor tasks can be frustrating and motor skills are often delayed in students with autism.
- Modified expectations – reduced demands
- Ability to ask for help – use physical prompting if student is comfortable
- Use video modeling to show the expected skill
Another challenge for students is simply not understanding what to do. They may not be able to quickly process the verbal instructions from the teacher. How many should they do? What do they do next?
- Use visual schedules
- Perform a task analysis and create visual supports for common skills
Finally, the gym is a great big place to run around! Yes…this is a problem if you have plans and your students are running in circles.
- Allow time for running! Warm-ups can be suited to your students’ strengths. If they want to run, structure it with a time or lap limit but allow the opportunity to enjoy the wide open space 🙂
Some rules carryover from the classroom to the gym but students may need reminders. Some of the “always” rules that are important in gym class are
- Safe hands and body
- Use my words
- Listen to teachers
Some rules are PE class specific. Posters can be used to remind students before class starts and referred to as needed.
PE specific rules include:
- Try my best
- Take care of equipment
- Be careful around others
- Wait my turn
- Use safety equipment
While posters are great for beginning of the class reminders, a portable version is helpful for staff to carry around (or attach to the back of student schedules) so it can be referenced quickly and easily.
Using Visual Schedules in PE Class
Visual schedules can be used to help provide direction and structure to students with autism. Schedules can be macro and show what the entire class is going to consist of or they can be micro and show what each station is going to entail. A bit of both is even better!
I loved using stations with my students because to be completely honest, a group game/activity just wasn’t going to be successful. Instead we had 3-4 stations around the room with different skills they were expected to try.
When students arrive to the gym, they were given their green/red schedule that showed the stations they were going to do. In the picture below, the student would start at the blue cone. They walk to that corner of the room and match their blue cone icon to the station sign which is posted on the wall.
The station sign shows what skills to perform. This example shows
Having these simple instructions help the student know what they should do without constant verbal instruction from the teacher.
Note: I used timers for stations instead of a set quantity to prevent backups or students rushing through each station just to be done.
You can make schedules for warm ups, equipment to be used, skills to try, exercise moves etc.
Providing Student Choices in PE
There are plenty of opportunities to provide students choices throughout class. This shares some of the power and hopefully they learn what they love to do! A long term goal of PE should be lifelong fitness to prevent a sedentary lifestyle after school ends in an already at-risk population.
An easy to make file folder full of icons and a green/red schedule or “I want” strip is a simple way to provide choices.
Communication Supports in PE
My students had a wide range of communication abilities and modalities. Their form of communication should always travel with the student but of course it’s hard to play tennis with a giant picture communication book hanging around your neck!
These mini communication visuals can help give students a voice when their device is set down on the side.
This visual communication strip includes four basic requests students can make:
- I need help
- I want a break
- It is too loud
- I want water
Students shouldn’t use these to escape work, but they are reasonable requests to be honored and then return to the task!
You can create visuals and schedules as needed for your class, but if you want a head start, grab my PE Visuals and Schedules in my store.
Looking for more visuals for specials? Here’s a post about structuring your art class and using visual supports and schedules!