Thursday, December 13, 2012

Heart of a Champion - Working With Autistic and Disabled Individuals

Working with individuals with physical and intellectual handicaps can be a herculean task. Most educational professionals have some exposure and understanding of how to work with this population, but it takes a particular and exceptional educator to effectively and willing work with them. I'd like to illustrate some of these finer points to hopefully improve the quality of time spent with those who have special needs. It will require some special tools; you'll need a mask, a lightning rod, an hourglass, and a jukebox. If you have these four things, you can be an effective and effervescent educator of the people who need your passion the most. All of these things are encompassed by a heart, and with it you can be a hero for those who need one.
However, I need to confess something; I don't have the heart for it.
I am a student at The College of New Jersey, perusing an undergraduate degree in Health and Exercise Science with a specialization in education. One of the classes mandated in my core curriculum is a class called Adapted Kinetics; it's really a politically correct way to categorize physical education for the intellectually and physically disabled. A large portion of the class is working with disabled individuals and getting real-life experience on how to work with them. There is very little to no coursework otherwise, aside from a couple of tests. As a class we worked with the Special Olympics of New Jersey for a golf outing, and we had weekly visits from the Eden Institute, a local group specializing in the care and education of autistic individuals.
It's been the most uncomfortable and challenging class I've taken in college at any level, bar none. I'm a certified personal trainer and I've worked with an exceptionally varied clientele, from NFL athletes to 8-year old children. I was an assistant coach for a local high-school lacrosse team, and I consider myself well experienced for my age and education. From the accounts of others, I'm personable, knowledgeable, and talented in the development of athleticism.
None of that prepared me for the atmosphere and challenges of working with the students of the Eden Institute and the athletes from SONJ. It's definitely unnerving. Communication is different than with the rest of the world,, and there isn't necessarily payoff for the work you put in. It drives me absolutely crazy. I started training because I know what the power of progress and success in athletics can do for the body and psyche of an individual. I enjoy the nature of the client/trainer relationship, learning how to most effectively communicate with each person. I love the light bulb that goes on when a client achieves a goal that they would have never imagined possible for themselves.
Working with disabled people can rob you of some, if not all of these things. I would go as far to describe it something akin to a personal training hell. It's very difficult for me as a professional to accept that someone I work with may never achieve or appreciate the joy of success and progress as I have.
Approaching the situation is intimidating. No one wants to be insensitive or aloof to these individuals, but sometimes it's hard to mask our feelings of discomfort. Not all people get that way, but the first tool in successful education is being able to bury the negative stuff if it's there.
That's our mask.
The second tool is a lightning rod. A lightning rod is something that accepts and distributes energy from the world around it in a safe and productive manner as an educator, whether it is with disabled persons or otherwise, you are a lightning rod.
Disabled peoples, perhaps even more so then others, feed off the energy you put forth. If you're not jumping around like a buffoon and enjoying what you're doing, you can bet that the person you're working with definitely won't be either. The enthusiasm you show can go a long, long way in making the educational experience more effective and enjoyable for you and the individuals under your instruction. However, finding the energy for this isn't always easy. Sometimes, you need to manufacture it yourself. The students are usually not ones to supply inspiration without a stimulus. It is on the educator to work at creating some electricity That sometimes takes time and patience, represented by the hourglass.
The jukebox, unlike some of the other tools alluded to previously, isn't a metaphor. Music is a great medium to facilitate energy, and it is a form of communication that crosses all boundaries. Having music in the background can help block out noise that might otherwise distract the students, and you can use changes in songs to cue changes in activities. From my personal experience, autistic individuals enjoy and are very responsive to music. Experiment with the types of music and see what the students respond to positively.
While all of these tools may not seem extravagant or uncommon, having all of them available and being able to actively use them for the betterment of others isn't found often.Not everyone has the desire to work with disabled individuals. To those that do, and willingly test the boundaries of patience and understanding, I have the utmost respect. However, any fitness professional has a good chance of being responsible for the education of these individuals, and I hope this article helps you make that experience better for you and your students.
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