Rock Walls, Pickle Balls, and Family Togetherness:

  • Michael J. Cameron, PhD, BCBA

    William Voss, MS, BCBA

    The Recreation and Leisure Imperative for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

                A recent article on systems engineering and Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) provoked enthusiasm about FMEA and its application to the education and instruction of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  FMEA is a systematic, forward-looking process used to identify where and how a system might fail before a system is employed; it is a preventative practice.  The FMEA structure is used to evaluate the relative impacts of faulty supports and thereby identify components of a process that require reexamination and redesign.  Envision the quality of education we could deliver to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder if new instructional methods assured success, potential problems were pre-identified, and the potential for failure was predicted and ultimately intercepted.  We submit that there is a noteworthy interconnection between FMEA and the instruction of children with ASD.

    Why Recreational and Leisure Skills Matter

                Balanced lifestyles should include a rich array of recreational and leisure activities.  However, there are several reasons why such pursuits are particularly important for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: (1) recreational and leisure interests enhance quality of life by providing environmental enlivening conducive to optimal psychological and physiological well-being; (2) they promote family cohesiveness and extended family engagement; (3) these activities can serve as a medium for natural social interactions among same-age peers; and (4) they can function as a platform for addressing goals prescribed by speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, or Board Certified Behavior Analysts®.  In illustration, a child with ASD who learns how to clip herself into a rock climbing harness and ascend a 30-foot climbing wall will undoubtedly command the respect of peers and arouse the attention of the interdisciplinary team guiding her development.  Therefore, there is a clear need for guidelines that identify appropriate activities for children with ASD, support development of a diverse repertoire of recreational and leisure skills, and espouse teaching methodologies that render learning simple, easy, fun, and fail-safe.

    Five Practical Guidelines for Promoting Fail-Safe


    Build Upon Strengths.

    Although important and necessary, a comprehensive inventory of deficits has never sufficed when developing a fail-safe instructional program.  Understanding a child’s strengths and personal preferences has always been the best docent for such matters.  Consequently, developing an instructional program necessitates understanding a child’s capabilities in cognitive development, social and emotional development, language and communication, fine and gross motor development, and physical development.  Children’s strengths and personal preferences should be connected to multiple and diverse recreational and leisure outlets.  We once supported a young boy with autism who had exceptional language aptitude, fine and gross motor skills, and a fascination with geometrical shapes, but etched geometric designs into all available wooden surfaces (e.g., furniture, hardwood floors).  To provide an appropriate alternative behavior he was introduced to “scratch art,” woodcarving, and a same-age peer with expertise in these art mediums.  With liberal access to materials he regularly engaged in these art activities with his parents.  This promoted focused and appropriate social interactions with a peer, a recreational and leisure outlet for him and his family, and was the starting point for remediating many of his challenges.  This is an example of taking children’s capabilities and interests and matching them to compatible recreational and leisure outlets.  Children’s interests and strengths, when connected to compatible activities, make success more probable and avoid instructional failure.

    Scout the Environment.

     Many recreational and leisure activities are undertaken in a specific context (e.g., skiing, snowboarding).  Program designers must investigate environments where activities will occur.  Information acquired should include: (1) materials needed to participate (e.g., skis, ski boots), (2) language used in the activity (e.g., “pizza wedge”) and typical activity-specific slang and idioms children use, (3) physical demands inherent in the activity (e.g., side-stepping, walking in ski boots), (4) the environment’s layout (e.g., bathrooms, snack bar), and (5) a general inventory of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic events that might induce anxiety.  The instructional programmer can then prime the child for the new environment, thereby reducing the likelihood of instructional failure.

    Prime for Success.

    Priming is a “preparatory” practice that introduces a learner to materials, language, demands, and information prior to public engagement in an activity.  If instructional designers have the requisite materials to assist with the priming process the likelihood of success increases.  In our experience, community members presented with a sincere request for assistance are both generous and gracious.  In illustration, the manager of a local bicycle shop lent one of us a high-pressure air pump to teach a child how to launch water rockets and a wind trainer to teach the same child how to pedal a bicycle and tolerate increased durations of pedaling.  The child demonstrated her new skills to the store manager; he directly witnessed his contribution to the support of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  A similar approach was used at a local music store, an indoor rock-climbing center, and even a local ski resort.  In every case members of the immediate family (including grandparents) were taught how to: (1) progressively introduce materials to the child, (2) rehearse critical actions (e.g., putting on skis, using a walkie-talkie), and (3) prepare the child by showing photographs, videos, and live demonstrations of familiar children engaged in the activity and enjoying the process of “playing.”  Priming is an essential part of the process of teaching children, promotes successful engagement, and allows instructors to prevent failure during engagement in the target activity.

    Mind the Threshold.

    Engaging children in activities beyond their threshold of tolerance should be avoided; we encourage instructional designers to “mind the threshold.”  In order to do so it is helpful for instructors to:

    •           Base decisions regarding duration of participation on previous successes and failures.

    •           Encourage and allow children to communicate choices and preferences, including ending an activity.

    •           Clearly convey expectations for participation and prepare to be flexible.

    •           Understand that a child may participate partially or briefly but it is still essential to end an activity on a good note; it is appropriate to increase a child’s engagement by way of successive approximation.

    Many variables can be implicated in the breach of a child’s threshold, including the imposition of novel expectations (e.g., walking sideways on skis), the significant effort an activity requires (e.g., scaling a rock wall), or taxing a child’s sensibilities during exposure to salient ambient stimulation (e.g., social proximity, intolerable sounds, potent smells, and unpredictable movements).  In order to enable success and avoid failure children’s personal thresholds of tolerance must be determined and honored.

    Capture the Story.

    I encourage families to memorialize the moment of a child’s engagement and capture their successes.  Children’s accomplishments are rendered more powerful when they can share them with others and personally revisit their own achievements.  For example, a father who was a champion tennis player wanted to share his passion for the sport with his daughter.  To introduce her to racquet sports, she was taught to play Pickle Ball; a sport that is easy to learn and accessible to people with diverse skill levels because oversized paddles and balls are employed.  The child learned to play Pickle Ball after a few instructional sessions and her first complete game was videotaped.  Although her mother was away she was able to share the excitement of the first game by watching the video with her daughter.  The video became a discussion point and spurred many additional games with the girl’s family members.  In addition, the game allowed the girl to work on social skills, communication skills, eye-hand coordination, and cardio-respiratory conditioning.

    The Recreation and Leisure Imperative

                Recreational and leisure skills are an essential part of a balanced lifestyle.  They offer a platform for connecting families, promote sibling and grandparent involvement in children’s lives, address skills across diverse domains (e.g., language and communication, social skills, fine and gross motor skills), and enrich children’s quality of life.

                Identifying methods for teaching such pastimes to children with ASD is critical.  The approaches of systems engineering and Failure Modes and Effects Analysis make relevant practical contributions to the development of the important skills necessary to avoid instructional failure.  This can be accomplished by building upon children’s strengths, scouting-out target environments, priming children (thereby avoiding surprises), understanding children’s personal thresholds for participation, and capturing their successes in images that can be shared and reviewed.

                Every person’s life is enhanced by honest balance, and the life of a child with autism is no different.  We submit that recreational and leisure skill development is essential for improving a child’s quality of life, functions as a generative platform for more global skill development, and positively impacts the lives of many individuals.  The idea of using fail-safe instruction in an effort to promote such important skills is relevant.  We believe the five recommendations outlined within this article are an essential part of an instructional program for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

                Dr. Michael J. Cameron, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, is the Chief Clinical Officer for Pacific Child and Family Associates (PCFA) and an expert in the assessment and treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining PCFA, Dr. Cameron was an Associate Professor and the Founding Chair of the Department of Behavior Analysis at Simmons College. Dr. Cameron has a particular interest in ASD, health, and quality of life of children and their families.


                William Voss, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, is the Clinical Director for Pacific Child and Associates (PCFA) in the Bay Area. He has over 10 years experience working with children and adults with ASD and other Developmental Disabilities. William is interested in using the principles of Behavior Analysts to improve the quality of services delivered to children ad their families.

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