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Perception is Key.

Engaging in activities that are perceived as unfamiliar is a natural part of life, but this doesn’t make it any less difficult of a task to overcome or get used to. For individuals of any age, the prospect of familiarizing with new activities or environments can be a daunting situation and cause undue stress or anxiety and as a result, people can be more likely to seek out places they know they can feel safe – their comfort zone.
This is a concept that can be especially true for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Potential Barriers

For this population, unanticipated schedule changes and/or unexpected events can often be a perceived as a distressing occurrence in their daily life, potentially resulting in an experience being perceived as traumatic (1). This can have a significant negative impact on their health and well-being as it can lead to increased incidences of anxiousness, depression, and behavioural problems, while further leaving them vulnerable of subsequent mental health disorders (1).

Due to individuals having their own unique experiences with any given situation, identifying ‘why’ a person might react a certain way to an unfamiliar situation is very important. However, the ‘why’ can often be multifactorial and involve the interplay of many different factors. One factor that I believe should be deeply considered when trying to integrate new environments and/or activities into a person’s already structured routine is ‘task perception’.

Task perception is not something that is black or white itself as it too is dependent on the interplay of several factors. A person’s perceptions towards a task will be constantly changing to fit how they feel in any given environment at that point in time. These perceptions are, however, individually experienced – This is to say that no one person will have the exact same perceptions towards any given scenario as another. Several common themes can have a significant influence over shaping our perceptions towards a specific task (2):

  • A person’s confidence and competency in their own ability to perform a desired task or activity.
  • A person’s motivation towards performing the requested activity and whether they can relate the activity to another aspect of their life or identify if it is an activity that could help them achieve something (ie. is it goal-oriented)?
  • Whether the person has the capacity and ability to adapt to any external demands associated with the activity. The external demands will vary from setting to setting but can include the noise level of an environment, whether it is indoors or outdoors, or if there is an expectation to be social associated with the activity.
  • Whether the task is seen as Task predictability is important as it is inclusive of environmental familiarity (if they have been exposed to the setting previously), task familiarity (if they have been exposed to the task itself previously) and task difficulty (how difficult the task is perceived to be).
    and lastly,
  • Is there an associated degree of freedom with the task? Is the individual able to be involved with the decision-making process and will they have the ability or opportunity to influence the task at hand once performing it?

While checking all the boxes can have a positive influence on the integration of activities into a routine, it should be noted that it can also result in the formation of more potential barriers which can further hinder engagement

Facilitating New Experiences

Overcoming these perceived barriers is often the first step towards facilitating new habits, new experiences and long-term engagement with new routines. Using generalised strategies at the beginning of the process can be beneficial as it can help kick-start behaviour change while laying the groundwork for more specific strategies to be implemented. Specific strategies that are tailored to meet individual needs ensures that any strategy used will be more relevant and meaningful to the person in question.
Several generalised strategies that can be used to overcome barriers may include, but are not limited to ­ (3):

  • Progressively incorporating movement-based activities into a daily schedule can facilitate physical activity in small bouts and promote regular exercise participation.
  • Ensuring there is a range of activities to choose from as a means of prioritising activities that are enjoyable to perform provide some level of satisfaction. Further, providing a degree of autonomy should also be provided to allow the individual to have an input on what they would like to perform from the range of activities provided.
  • Incorporating parent involvement in any given activity can help decrease the potential impact fear can have on the decision-making process.
  • Utilizing task manipulation can sometimes be more beneficial than trying to cause complete cessation of the task in question. This can involve changing typical sedentary behaviours, such as video-game playing; to be more movement-based, such as active video-game playing.

Habit Formation

Habit formation is time-consuming, requires a lot of effort and motivation, and is generally not completely linear in progress as we want it to be. Creating a habit can take upwards of 10-weeks in duration, however, the behaviour will get progressively easier to perform over this duration. The important thing to remember is to not become discouraged if the stars don’t align perfectly. Persistence is key and putting in place strategies can help the process feel like  a more smooth transition and less tedious (4).

  • Quash unrealistic expectations of how long it can take to create a new habit to ensure an appropriate timeframe is put in place at the start.
  • To have input on the chosen target behaviour. Working towards a self-determined behavioural goal can help facilitate and support the individual’s sense of autonomy and it can help with sustaining interest as the behaviour change has been chosen based on personal value.
  • As failure can be discouraging, aiming for small and manageable behaviour changes can help increase a person’s self-efficacy, can become habitual more quickly, and it can further stimulate the pursuit of further behaviour changes.

Lifestyle Promotion

Promoting a lifestyle that incorporates the combination of psychological, social, and physical supports can offer person’s with ASD the opportunity to regularly improve on their physical, mental, and social health and well-being. Furthermore, promoting positive behaviour change can help pave the way for reduced feelings of anxiousness when new activities are being introduced into a routine, as well as offer further benefits towards helping foster independence and autonomy in everyday life.

1) Fuld, S. (2018). Autism Spectrum Disorder: The impact of stressful and traumatic life events and implications for clinical practice. Clinical Social Work Journal, 46(3), 210-219

2) Arnell, S., Jerlinder, K., & Lundgvist, L-O. (2018). Perceptions of physical activity participation among adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: A conceptual model of conditional participation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 48(5), 1792-1802

3) Stanish, H. I., Curtin, C., Must, A., Phillips, S., Maslin, M., & Bandini, L. G. (2016). Enjoyment, Barriers, and Beliefs about physical activity among adolescents with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 32(4), 302-317

4) Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation; and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664-666

Written by Rhys, Accredited Exercise Physiologist, PsychPhys®