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Autism - Simple Exercises For Young Adults

Updated on October 4, 2015
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Andrew is a specialist drama teacher with over ten years of experience. He has a teaching degree from Huddersfield University in the UK.

Graph showing increase in diagnosis of Autism in the USA.
Graph showing increase in diagnosis of Autism in the USA. | Source


Included in this hub are simple exercises and warm ups that, in my experience, help those with autism on several levels : the physical, the social and the psychological. They could be useful tools for teachers and educators, as well as parents and supporters.

By following special programmes from an early age it is possible for someone with autism to achieve much in their lives. If those programmes include a mix of one to one work and group work then a balance can be struck - individuals can learn to socialise, communicate and tolerate those around them. I believe interaction, play and exercise can be of enormous benefit and be a prime mover in an individual's life.

Autism is on the increase world wide. Nobody can pinpoint the exact reason why but the more that we can do for those who are diagnosed the better for everyone. I have worked with all types of autistic young adults for many years and it is so heartening to see the efforts of family, volunteers and professionals on a daily basis - not to mention the autistic young people themselves who we all know have so much to offer!


The Benefits of Simple Exercise: Introduction

Let's take a look at the many ways simple interaction can be a tremendous force for good in the treatment of autistic young adults.

First and foremost young people with autism need to be understood as human beings - capable of feeling, emotion, flexibility and expression just like anyone else. The young adults I've worked with over time have all contributed positively and shown great willingness to work with the group. Yes, certain structures have to be put into place for them to feel safe within a routine but once these are established you can then start to work with the individual.

So, before anything else, make sure you know everyone's name and if possible mention it at every opportunity.

Simple and straightforward movement exercises are an ideal follow on from the initial walking warm ups ( see my hub The Benefits of Drama Therapy for Autistic Young Adults ) which are perfect for loosening the limbs and relaxing everyone.


Individual Traits - A Case Example

Some young people with autism have particular sensitivities and can become distressed if they aren't approached or addressed in a manner they feel comfortable with. Get to know beforehand your students needs. For example, one young man I taught didn't like being addressed by his first name. If he heard Jack he would put his hands to his ears and shout 'Again!' really loudly. So I learnt about that and started to call him 'Mr B' which he liked. Him shouting 'Again' actually meant NOT AGAIN!

Learning From The Previous Session

Through close observation in the walking warm ups you've probably picked up a few insights into the personalities and physical characteristics of each student. It always amazes me the amount of information I can gather from just watching someone walk!

I start to learn just as the group starts to learn. Learning happens the moment the group starts its work. The teacher's job is to make the learning enjoyable and meaningful to the student. In addition I'm looking for answers to the questions each student brings. For example :

  • is that young man a good listener as he walks - does he respond immediately to my voice or does he need to watch and copy others?
  • how come one young woman loses concentration so easily?
  • is there a trust issue with another young woman who doesn't look up and who lags behind all the others?
  • why does the young man become loud when I suggest politely he keep his distance from another person?

During feedback or when the session has ended make notes and comments about each student. The information you gather can then be used to create simple targets, short and medium term, which will encourage a sense of achievement and learning.


Further Benefits - The Exercise Circle

Explain to the group that you want them to do some exercise movements. Easy and painless!You're going to get the group to form a rough circle so gesture with your arm - come group and position yourselves. Make sure each person has enough space to swing their arms around without clonking in to their next door neighbour.

When everyone is settled let them see your enthusiasm for what you're about to suggest! It's very straightforward.

  • Raise your right arm. Drop it to your side. Then raise your left and drop it to your side. Ask them to copy you. Take note of who is successful and who not. At this early stage it is vital that you -
  • find out who is most challenged and who not. Slow the quicker ones down and give encouragement to slower individuals.
  • let the group sense your awareness. Keep your voice soft and the messages positive.
  • now lift both arms out in scarecrow fashion, drop them.
  • now lift both arms above your head, drop them.
  • then lift both arms above your head and stretch right out until you're on tiptoe.
  • repeat the whole exercise slowly at first until all the group can manage it to the best of their ability.
  • when finished, loosen arms and shake!

That's a 5 point exercise the aim of which is to bond the group and instil a little trust. Plus, they'll all be a bit fitter for it!


Inside The Circle

For the autistic person a circle is an abstract idea because most on the autism spectrum think or behave in straight lines or boxes. The concept of forming a circle out of people can be a challenge!

Keep a close eye on each student when the circle has been formed. If some have difficulty keeping still place a coloured cone or marker next to them as a point of focus. You could also form a circle with rope or tape and get the group to stay within it.

Your first circle exercise could involve a soft ball or other object easy enough to handle and pass on. Introduce the ball to the group and with a demonstration get them to pass it right round the circle, one to the other until it comes back to you. You can develop this further by standing in the middle, throwing the ball, asking a question or two and getting a response - ideally verbal but be happy if you make eye contact or see a gesture! That is progress!

After a few minutes suggest that the circle moves, like a clock ticking, a full 360 degrees. Then try a slightly different approach and test the memory of your students with specific questions about their favourite things - food, movie, t.v programme, book, music, person, celebrity and so on. Give praise where it's due and adapt your language to the individual where possible.

Let's look at the benefits a circle brings -

1. A sense of togetherness - everyone is part of the same shape.

2. Spatial awareness - we need enough space, we have to keep our distance.

3. Eye contact - we can easily look at one another.

4. Flexibility - the circle can be reformed if someone drops out.

5. Interaction - opportunity to move closer and interact.


No Engagement?

If a young adult finds the group work difficult suggest a time out on a chair put to one side. Make sure you can keep an eye on them or have a support worker on hand. One young man I knew had behaviour issues from time to time so I engaged him by asking if he could take photographs for me of the group. He did this and afterwards showed the results during feedback.

Individual Traits

If one of your students has little or no speech but knows signing then be sure to give them space and time to communicate. Should there be no speech or signing it's still important to spend time speaking for them. This ensures that all members of the group are acknowledged during feedback time.

A young male I teach has no speech or signing so I speak for him, going over what he's done and how his session has been. If I can get him to give a thumbs up and eye contact in response then this rounds off the feedback time nicely.


At the end of the session sit everyone down around a table in a quiet corner and give realistic feedback to everyone individually. Highlight what they've achieved, no matter how small or insignificant. The idea is to let them know that you have taken positives from their being together.

Ask for questions or comments and respond as honestly as you can. Explain to them that you are looking forward to the next session and give the dates and times, written down if needed on a timetable.

You're ready to prepare for the next step, basic communication.


© 2012 Andrew Spacey


Submit a Comment

  • chef-de-jour profile image

    Andrew Spacey 5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Many thanks for the visit and comment MarieAlana. The more we connect with autism the more we understand.

  • MarieAlana1 profile image

    Marie Alana 5 years ago from Ohio

    This article is very interesting. Great advice! It intrigues me...

  • chef-de-jour profile image

    Andrew Spacey 5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you - the group I take today will be 'performing'under stage ligts for the first time - no audience yet, just me! Can't wait to see the reactions?!

  • mom4autism profile image

    Lisa 5 years ago from Northeast U.S.

    Great article and nice insight into the chaotic world of Autism! I am happy to read these blogs and learn a thing or two from you as well! Following and voting up!

  • chef-de-jour profile image

    Andrew Spacey 5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    That's such a positive move. This is what I really like about the arts and drama in particular - it allows all types to participate - gives them a sense they're part of a team yet expressing themselves as individuals. There's nothing quite like that energy buzz when new things are being discovered about a person - a hidden talent, a learning technique, a way of moving.

    Appreciate your comment, thanks.

  • Miss Eileen profile image

    Miss Eileen 5 years ago from Hollywood, CA

    Great advice! have had several mainstreamed Asperger's students whose focus and ability to learn lines was amazing. They inspired the other students to work harder. Since they didn't naturally reach out to connect to the other students, I made it the classes purpose to reach out to them. It benefitted them all.

  • chef-de-jour profile image

    Andrew Spacey 5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Muchas gracias senor. Hasta pronto.

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

    good work - congrat.