How to Support Learners with Autism in PE

By | December 9, 2019

Submitted by: Sadie Brown

Job Title: Adapted Physical Education Teacher 

School / District: Sun Prairie Area School District

Contact Info: [email protected]

Every year as physical education teachers we are learning of more and more students with varying disabilities in our classes.  Often many are easy to “see” like muscular dystrophy, down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. The area I hear most teachers often struggle with is those unseen disabilities like autism.  Since April is Autism Awareness Month I thought this would be a great time to shed some light on how our learners with Autism function and how we can support them in physical education.  

First, let’s start by looking at autism as an ability and not a disability.  Everyone is unique, with different talents, interests, ways of communicating their feelings and our learners with autism are no different. Instead of focusing on all the things they do that are “different” or “abnormal” why don’t we look at how we can help support the way their brain functions so that they can learn the information along with their peers.   They are a person first and autism just is a small description of who they are and how their brain functions. I also want you to be mindful on the idea of the concept of “autism awareness.” Do we really need to be aware? I think this word can often have a negative connotation and just be thinking about this when you are with people who have autism and that they might see this more as a negative than positive.  Yes it’s okay to talk about autism, celebrate, and learn about it but let’s not see it as this daunting problem that people have to deal with. We have many people in our society with autism who have created amazing contributions to our world and we can only hope to continue to see more of that as we foster our young learners in school to be their best selves no matter how their neurology works.

We talk so much about personalized learning for students, yet when the student has a label of autism we are quick to not think about personalizing their learning for them instead hope they show up with support and the aid will figure it out, right?  It’s okay if you are thinking “yes”, that’s exactly how I feel! I think our districts do a great job of supporting classroom teachers on how to work with learners with autism, but often forget about those of us who teach in other environments that are not always as structured and predictable.  Today, I want to give you a few quick things you can do tomorrow in your gym to make it more autism friendly. I hope that you can take at least one concept/idea from this list that will be helpful for one of your learners. Maybe you only have one student with autism but think of how much more learning they will gain if you take some extra time to make your class autism friendly.  In classes where teachers have done this, I have see the neurotypical kids even react with appreciation and also are more accepting of their peer with autism. You are fostering not only the students cognitive learning, but also their social and emotional growth which is an area most learners with autism struggle the most with. And if nothing else, some of these things are just great classroom management techniques to use for all learners!



  1. SHUT UP!!
    • I know this sounds rude but seriously stop talking so much! Our learners with autism are typically better visual than auditory processors.  What does that mean? It means they can understand things when we show them better than we just talk through the directions. Now, that doesn’t mean don’t ever talk to them, social interaction is great.  However, talk slow, direct and simple. They need time to process your words. If you have visuals that go along with your words, that makes it even better. Once you give the direction don’t repeat it. Instead, point to the picture or words. This can be pretty simple in PE.  Pictures of actions, words written down (if they are a reader) visuals of routines, etc.  
    • This is also a really valuable piece of advice and so simple.  Give your learners with autism time to respond to questions, directions, etc.  Especially when only giving auditory information it takes them longer to process the information.  If you ask or tell them something repeatedly, every time you say it they have to restart the process in their brain to understand the information coming in.  Those constant restarts make their brain glitchy and they often don’t respond, get frustrated or you see physical or verbal outburst (could be hitting, shouting, etc).  Give them time to respond. To you it may seem like forever, but to them it means so much if you just give them that extra time. With visuals that wait time is often much shorter.  
    • This is as simple as it sounds. Turn the lights down dimmer or less (if you can) and turn your music, microphone, etc down as well.  Learners with autism can be overwhelmed by over stimulation from their surroundings. In the gym often the lights reflecting off the floor, the sound echoing throughout the large space, and kids playing can be very exhausting on their brains.  Little things like lights dimmed and sound turned down can make the space more welcoming and calming. I often talk to my other students in that PE class about moving at a calmer speed and keeping the side conversations down as well to help with this. They are usually pretty understanding. 
    • Timers that can be seen either for the individual student or whole class are great.  Maybe you are doing stations or a warm-up for a certain amount of time. Also, it’s good to have one in handy if a student needs a break for a few minutes.  There are lots of apps out there you can download for free. Just keep in mind the sound for when the timer goes off at the end sometimes can be loud or hard on the auditory system.
    • I think we all know this works well with all students.  However when you praise a learner with autism after they did a correct skill, followed a routine, etc they often store that as a part of that activity in their brain for retrieval later.  If they have a negative connection to the activity it may be more difficult for them to do it again. Often my learners who have more access have communicated with me that when they fail at skills in PE (no positive response) they are less likely to do it again.  
    • It’s important to create some boundaries for our learners with autism.  If there is a space they shouldn’t go into lock it, shut it, do something to close it off.  This might include equipment rooms, office space, locker rooms, etc. Things that do predictable things are often seeked out by learners with autism: light switches, doors, flushing of toilets, power buttons. These items all do the same thing every time you touch them.  Humans are not predictable so when students with autism are feeling overwhelmed, they may seek out the predictable activities. You can replace them with something they can hold in their hand or maybe a break spot in the gym they can go to that’s their space. It’s predictable. They might have choices of movement or predictable things they can do.  
    • Going along with the environment, using poly spots to help with where a student should be in the space is helpful.  Maybe the poly spot has their picture, name or a something they enjoy on it that will get them to it. Stations are also a great way for learners with autism to learn in PE. There is a routine, it’s numbered, often there are visuals and a written schedule can be made for it.  Stations are another very predictable concept that can often help them learn several skills during class.
    • Again just as it sounds, maybe you have a class attention getter that is not a whistle.  A call and response, a mindful breath, or other breathing techniques to get their attention.  Using gestures and demonstrations (without words) also can be helpful to the learner with autism so that they can process the skill and not have to use both their auditory and visual systems at the same time.
    • Anytime you can have a visual of the skill, activities or rules written out in simple form, these are all great ways to support a learner with autism’s neurology.  It goes back to that visual system that works so well for them and supporting it anyway we can. If you do some research, you will get lots of ideas on how to create visual schedules or just visuals for routines in class. 
    • Video modeling is something that we don’t see used enough with our learners with autism.  They process pictures (visuals) well but there is research out there to support the idea of videos being even easier to process and retrieve for later use.  It can be as simple as taking a video of another student doing a skill and then showing to your learner. I often will use an ipad or other device that I have handy to record myself or another student doing a skill, then play it for my learner and often they are able to do it after watching it a few times (without sound on helps too).  Sometimes, if they have more access, I let them do the recording which they enjoy as well. Maybe you can record a game of a previous class so the student can watch it (especially more complicated ones). This can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it. Be creative! 

Hopefully you can find one thing on this list that is useful to you and your students.  I know that a lot of it is easier said than done but the important thing is to give it a try.  Nothing will work like magic the first time (trust me!) but give it time and one day things will just click.  The change you will see in your learners with autism when you start supporting their neurology will be amazing to watch.  If you are still struggling or have more questions, feel free to reach out any time. I am not an expert but I am willing to talk through situations with you.  Sometimes taking a step back and having another set of eyes on it is really all it takes to help our students be successful. Thanks for all you do to support ALL of your learners!

Sadie Brown is an full-time Adapted Physical Education Teacher in the Sun Prairie School District.  Sadie along with her awesome APE colleagues work around the district with students of varying abilities to support and include them in regular physical education class.  Sadie is also a part of the Sun Prairie Autism team where she helps support teachers in the district working with students with autism and educates through professional development about autism.