The school, one of the first in the nation at the time, provided a setting where twelve males and later one female, all on the autism spectrum including Asperger’s syndrome, would take high school required classes in a supportive environment, as well as being safely mainstreamed into classes with the public high school next door. The ASPIE School operated for three years from 2003-2006.
My position was alternative physical education teacher and providing mentoring support during some other classes. The background I provided as a professional dancer/choreographer and a practitioner of the martial arts for more than 25 years, as well as operating a private practice for 10 years mentoring mainly young males with Asperger’s syndrome ages 9 –19, was very helpful for the work at the ASPIE School. I was able to teach life transition skills, healthy living, body core strength building and effective physical coordination, and most importantly, developing the mindful stamina to deal with daily life stresses with calmness and self- confidence.
The basic goal of an alternative PE class for the ASPIE School was to provide a safe environment to learn the following: developing basic physical tools needed for most social games and activities, learning ‘team-like’ cooperation which is great in teaching social virtues, and just plain learning that the idea of being a little bit more physical in one’s life helps tremendously in understanding how to be more body-centered in order to balance out the overly ‘high functioning in my head’ strengths. This in turn leads to learning the vital social and life-coping strategies so important for the pre-teen and teen life.
Since most public high school P.E. experiences generally involve a ‘sink or swim’ or ‘are you cool or not?’ mentality, evaluation based of the activities you can do or not do, for the ASPIE student who lacks the basic social skills needed to be accepted in a classroom situation, a regular PE class - as my aspie clients would confess to me - is an experience from a certain type of Hades. It is very unsafe because of personal fears, bullying by the physically adept, intimidating P.E teachers and the overly stimulating space of various smells, clothing requirements, sounds, temperatures and light. And you can just forget about the infamous P.E shower time!
This is where I came in. The values and virtues of the martial training component of my alternative P.E classes worked effectively as the interface with these students because of their deep interests in computer video games like ‘Warcraft’, many of which have warrior themes and characters. One important warrior virtue is defining the line between fiction and fact – knowing what really is happening from what is being conjured in one’s mind from past fears and pre-conceived ideas of past trauma and bad experiences, which in my experience in mentoring young people is one of the core life transition concepts to understand and to implement. Recognizing the truth of one’s current thinking about what is really happening in one’s everyday experiences helps an Aspie individual to decide whether to have a severe meltdown due to stress/anxiety/fear or to implement a grounded and well thought out resolution to challenging the aggravating situation at hand.
The main goals I had developed for the ASPIE alternative PE class were simple. I offered the ASPIE students what I provided in my private practice. The objectives here were developing the understanding of the mind/body coordination needed in simple physical activities such as walking, running, catching, and throwing. I utilized a lot of aikido martial art movement and wooden sword training for the breathing focus, the calmness of mind and the self-confidence to prevail through the stresses of any given moment.
I was able to empathize with and understand both the physical limitations and the debilitating emotionally stressful life experienced by most of the Aspie students. I recognized the students’ underdevelopment of a self-confident vibrant core so essential for a growing pre-teen and teen. This weakness of inner strength was displayed in their lack of emotional and physical presence connection with the space and time of the world around them.
For example, Aspies tend to stand too close or too far. They might speak too loud, in an inflectionless voice, or with a slight whisper response. They might be found bumping into you, bumming into me, and bumming into themselves. I observed their slumping posture of the body in a spacey unawareness. I can emphasize with them. When I was young I was a very quirky, clumsy, spaced-out kid who stuttered.
Thus I included other avenues for personal development that would address posture, presence and pride in the alternative P.E classes at ASPIE.
I meant to instill a sense of pride in the self to individuals who came to me beaten down by the over-stimulated world around them, their poor self- perceptions, and the after-effects from the bad experiences that until now had defined them.
The added components, drawn from the martial arts and the performing arts, included dance/theater and acting exercises such as theater improvisation, body control and voice projection. These exercises were designed to improve their self-confidence and have this reflected in how they stood, walked, talked, sat, worked, and interacted with others.
The martial training of the class helped with awareness of the present moment and staying calm, based on the martial teachings of old that remain so valid today. A simple martial truth can be summed up as: “one cut - one moment to live”. In other words, one is totally ready to live and die at all times with a mindful fearlessness and calmness of spirit with the mind/body performing as one. This awareness can be carried over into all moments in school, work, and life.
This concept is also true in the performing arts, as I had experienced it as a professional dance/theater performer. During a performance the dancer better know and remember the choreography despite stomach-rattling stage jitters or else there will be a lot of unplanned dance improvisation performed in front of a large audience. And this could be a quite embarrassing moment for both dancer as well as the audience having to watch you make it all up. Thus, students in my P.E. class learned how to stay calm and focused, even when performing in front of others.
Another contribution I made at the ASPIE School was to convey the information being taught in my P.E class with all of their other teachers. This continuity of skill teaching reminded the students of the training of information which they were learning then able to use to self-regulate their detrimental behaviors during regular class time. The information I would share in the weekly staff meetings were the specific target language I used with the students such as, “Stay grounded in your feet to be grounded in your body” or “Take breaths to give yourself pause to calm yourself”. Simple mind-body awareness exercises I used in my alternative PE classes were shared with classroom teachers as well. Such as having the students practice ‘sitting on your throne’ - which is a way to practice ‘active’ sitting - while in class to relieve fatigue and spaciness. I also suggested that teachers include a 5 minute mind/body break every 30 or 45 minutes of class time to reconsolidate focus, calmness and intention in studying or test taking.
Because I understood the wide ranging detrimental behaviors and anxiety/stress related responses that each student exhibited in different classroom or social situations, I was able to suggest ways to short circuit the usual toxic cycle of past learned ‘knee jerk- shoot from the hip’ reactions which would lead to a meltdown of ‘screaming/crying/physical breakdown/giving-up completely’ attitudes, by replacing this with the awareness that a choice can be made to use strategies for safer ways of communicating anger or stress thus experiencing a shorter recovery time from meltdowns and breakdowns.
Introducing my unusual PE class to the gym-phobic students was not an easy task. The first PE class with the ASPIE School students was met by some with rolling eyes, reluctance and even out-right mutiny to have no part of me. The simplest breathing exercises were laughed at and done with embarrassment and silliness.
One student’s experience of the first Alternative PE class sticks out clearly in my mind today. This story also exemplifies how hard it is for an individual on the autism spectrum to be more body oriented. The student was so shy and reluctant to join the other students that he listened to my opening introduction on and first class lesson through an open door. And there he sat, listening out of sight around the corner of the door in the hallway with an aide. And as the time passed, like a scared fawn out of the forest he slowly came into the class and watched from the back; then after a few times of watching he would try what his peers were doing and get discouraged quickly and give-up, until the day came - weeks later – that he was leading the class in the opening breathing exercises!
Through the months of the first year of operation, some ASPIE School students were trying to implement alternative PE learned tools and mentoring suggestions from me with the compassionate guidance and gentle prodding from the class teachers and aides. They began showing different degrees of small, yet very recognizable personal physical enhancements in their posture, class focus, and general vitality. Others displayed a tentative, though still somewhat shaky, inner connection of self-awareness strength. This newly realized personal strength of trying to regulate ones’ behavior was utilized at crucial times in their regular classes by being able to reel in their mind wandering and re-focus, or trying to be flexible rather than falling back on their past rigid attitudes of habitual reluctance to do as they were asked to.
What I found most endearing and inspiring was when the more challenged ASPIE School students demonstrated the courage, the intention to focus, and the developing fortitude in themselves to draw forth from their physical and emotional core - riddled with their past energies of fear, personal distrust and entrenched rigidity – the ability to make the difficult choice to shift in their mindful behavior, in any small degree, and to de-claw the totally draining and destructive meltdown outbursts.
The first year of the ASPIE School ended with a demonstration by the students of skills learned in my alternative PE class. All the students’ family and school staff attended. Most parents were eager to see for themselves what they had been hearing of ; that their son was able to sit-up without fidgeting, display a body control and coordination in movement, and most importantly, showing pride and confidence in their physical bearing and presence.
The students presented group breathing, solo and group sword movement, solo and group balancing exercises, and posture. Also impressive was the ability for all the students to sit quietly the whole time, awaiting their turn to participate, showing supreme control of their old impulsive chattering, fidgeting, whining, slumping and mindful distraction and zoning out. At the finish of the 45-minute demo there was not a dry eye in the whole room from parents, teachers and aides.
The pride in their sons (and students), was like a breath of bright energy that finally was exhaled for the first time. Big smiles and lots of tears for joy!
The lesson here for future alternative PE classes for special needs individuals is to create a truly alternative modality that incorporates the entire holistic mind/body in training. The blending of both traditional PE requirements (team games and physical aptitude), with that of more alternative avenues of expressing personal power including creative movement, theater games for voice and creative play, and the martial arts such as the Japanese form of aikido for dynamic physical core development, conflict resolution concepts through martial studies, and how to extend one’s energy and regulate one’s energy. The martial arts are also great for the study of social and spatial dynamics, personal discipline and focus, and finally, the art of relationship development and staying connected.
Overall, my experience teaching alternative PE at ASPIE was a memorable experience and a learning one for all involved. The progress the students made in a short time has further convinced me of the need to incorporate mind/body/breath awareness and exercises into all programs for special needs students. Self-confidence and social relationships are enhanced by greater physical awareness of self and other. The ability to self-regulate and manage behavior is also best taught through a system that incorporates breath, mind, and body. The ability to communicate and express oneself and to understand others on the non-verbal level is certainly vital to anyone on the autism spectrum. My sincere wish is that these ideas begin to be explored and utilized within all programs designed for helping those with autism and other physical, social, and learning disabilities.
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