Integrating Children with Autism into a Physical Activity and Recreation Setting
The purpose of this study was to examine the patterns of behavior of children who were severely handicapped and autistic as they were integrated into a physical education and exercise program (Schleien, et al., 1987). The desire was to determine whether the social and behavioral skills of these children were improved after they had been exposed to an exercise and physical education program, or whether there was no difference seen. The way that the handicapped children were treated by the other children in the program - who were not handicapped - was also examined, in an effort to draw conclusions about how individuals treat those who are different and whether those differences cause children to shun others or accept them. Only two handicapped children were used for the study, and they were eight and eleven years old (Schleien, et al., 1987). Measures of improvement were assessed by the researchers at the end of the study, in order to see if there were any differences made by the physical activity and exercise program, as well as by the way these children were treated by their peers, so further recommendations could be made.
Review of the Literature
Literature into the subject of autism and physical activity was reviewed by the authors of the study. That literature indicated that there was a growing trend toward physical fitness in the United States, and that exercise could benefit people of all different types and activity levels. Discovering the human body and the feats of which it is capable can be valuable information for people, no matter what handicaps they may face in their lives. Additionally, physical exercise can contribute to mental health and well-being, which is an issue that must be carefully considered when it comes to autistic individuals and those how have other kinds of handicaps. How much a person can do from a physical standpoint is significant, but any exercise is often considered to be better than no exercise at all. The literature also indicated that handicapped individuals can take great joy out of physical activity of some kind, especially when it includes interaction with others (Schleien, et al., 1987).
Not everyone has the opportunity to engage in physical activity that is planned and that involves others. People who have severe handicaps, either mental, physical, or both, are generally still on the fringes of society, and they are not afforded the opportunity to enjoy activity in the way that others are. With children, this is even more pronounced, because schools and other facilities have not integrated these children into physical education and exercise classes and other opportunities to a high degree. Recreational settings at schools and in the community at large are generally not prepared for handicapped individuals (Schleien, et al., 1987). Because that is the case, it can be difficult for anyone who is handicapped to find ways in which he or she can interact with others and still get physical activity in a controlled and planned environment. There is little being done to change this.
Because the environments are not readily available for these kinds of children, they and their parents and caregivers can be left struggling to find individuals who will help them and places where they can play and enjoy themselves in the least restrictive environment (Schleien, et al., 1987). It makes sense that these children need to be protected from harm, but it does not make sense that they must be denied the joy of play and exercise and interaction simply because they have limitations over which they have no control. This is at the crux of the issue of exercise and handicapped children.
The subjects of this study were two handicapped and autistic children. One was eight years of age and the other was eleven years of age (Schleien, et al., 1987). These children were placed into the study with 67 non-handicapped children, and all were enrolled in the University of Minnesota Children's Sport Fitness School (CSFS). Based on developmental and autistic testing, both of the children were far "younger" than their peers from a development standpoint. Subject 1 was classified as 27-31 months, and Subject 2 was classified as 35-38 months (Schleien, et al., 1987). In short, both subjects had the mental capacity of a child who was in the 2.5 to 3-year-old age range. Both of these subjects received high scores on assessments performed to measure their level of disability, where the higher the score was the more it indicated that disability was an issue for these children.
Subject 1 engaged in moaning, crying, and tantrums. Subject 2 was more likely to grab objects from peers, scream, and perform behavior that could be self-injurious (Schleien, et al., 1987). Both children went to public elementary school, but attended classes in a special wing of the school that was designed for handicapped and autistic children. They did not have interaction at school with non-handicapped peers. In the summer, the students were enrolled in CSFS with other students, all of whom were not considered to be handicapped or autistic. The autistic and handicapped children were placed into the program by their caregivers in an effort to provide them with further interaction with others.
The setting for this study was the CSFS program, which lasts for three weeks in the summer. It is conducted on the University of Minnesota campus, which provided a gymnasium, a gymnastics room, an outdoor sports field, and a swimming pool (Schleien, et al., 1987). Any supplemental equipment that was necessary for the activity planned for the attendees was also available.
The staff of the summer program were salaried graduate students, all of whom were working toward their Masters or Doctorate in Physical Education. Their previous contact with handicapped students was limited, so they attended a "Special Friends" presentation before they worked with the students (Schleien, et al., 1987). They also discussed any concerns or issues with safety, treatment, and understanding of students who were autistic, handicapped, or different in some way.
All recreational preferences of the handicapped children were identified by their parents, as well as the special education teacher and adapted physical education teacher at their school. This was done to determine whether the preferences influenced the children's behavior in various settings. All children were registered and received uniforms. The ability of the handicapped students was assessed during the first week of the program (Schleien, et al., 1987). That allowed the staff to make a determination of what was appropriate from an activity level basis. The researchers could also use that information to see if there were differences in behavior after the program had been completed. The "Special Friends" presentation was shown to all the non-handicapped children, and a "buddy" was selected for each handicapped student for each week of the program (Schleien, et al., 1987).Volunteering children were selected first, because they showed interest in helping the handicapped children.
Activities were scheduled for each day, and breaks were also scheduled to give the children rest periods in between periods of being active. The students all received instruction in fitness concepts (Schleien, et al., 1987). The students were grouped, and each group moved through different activities during the day. Then there was a 30-minute recreation period at the end, where everyone could play together. The planned activities were both competitive and cooperative, and helped the children improve their motor skills and learn to work with one another (Schleien, et al., 1987).
Summary of the Data Gathered
The collected data showed that the handicapped students were significantly better at interaction with their peers and at motor skills than they were at the start of the program (Schleien, et al., 1987). This led the researchers to believe that exercise and interaction had affected the way these handicapped children felt about play and about working with others. Both attitude and behavior were measured by trained observers, rendering the study less subjective than it might otherwise have been.
Discussion and Research Conclusion
Based on the collected information, the researchers concluded that both of the handicapped, autistic children improved in their physical skills as well as their social and leisure skills. The differences were significant for children who tested in that level and range of handicap on the provided tests. These children were more focused and accepting of one another and the other children, and they were also less prone to aggressive outbursts and other inappropriate behaviors (Schleien, et al., 1987). This was a marked improvement, especially since it was only over the course of three weeks (Schleien, et al., 1987). If they children had been at the program for a longer period of time, their progress may have been even more significant. The effectiveness of these kinds of programs was what the researchers wanted to study, and they received results that were clear and noticeable.
Being able to see results is important for any researcher, but that…