Syracuse University Magazine

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An Active Time for Children with Autism

“I made that ball go as high as fireworks!” That was the happy exclamation of Robert, one of the 16 kids who participated in the Syracuse University Fit Families for Children with Autism event held in the Women’s Building this spring. The atmosphere was playful and lively in the building’s two large gyms and dance studio, which were set up with a colorful variety of recreational equipment and activities for the kids, including a miniature obstacle course, scooter boards, a balance beam, soccer balls, tumbling mats, jump ropes, and a parachute. While the parents engaged in a two-hour workshop with experts in adapted physical education, each child was guided through the activities by a pair of SU students—exercise science or physical education majors who had been preparing for weeks under the direction of Professor Luis Columna, the program’s founder.

Families were reunited for a pizza lunch, after which the children got the chance to show off for their parents, and the parents were able to practice with their children the activities they learned in the morning. “That’s one of the novel aspects of our scholarship, because in most programs like this, the parents go to workshops and then go home and try it on their own. We have them try it right here and provide immediate feedback,” says Columna, a faculty member in the School of Education’s Department of Exercise Science. “That personal interaction, that one-on-one feedback, is key for the success of the program.”

The April event was the first of five daylong workshops on inclusive recreation offered by the Fit Families Program, which invited parents of a child with autism, ages 5 to 10, to participate in a research study led by Columna. The program’s purpose is to learn more about and promote physical activity experiences for children with autism and their families and to research the correlating effects of an active lifestyle. “We hope to identify common issues, understand what types of activities the families currently enjoy, and determine how we might increase physical activity experiences within each family,” Columna says.

Columna’s students also benefit from the program, which provides them with opportunities to hone their skills by working directly with children and families. “Most of our students are going to be physical therapists or occupational therapists, and I believe they will be better equipped when they go to get their first jobs,” he says. “They’ll know how to do an initial assessment and prescribe activities, whether it is for children or another age group. And our program gives them a sense of confidence.” Participation also helps students find their passion, Columna says. “They may realize, ‘Wait a minute! I’m really good with kids.’ So maybe they decide to go into a pediatric field.”

Pat Cooper ’16 is a health and exercise science major who became involved in the program through the Motor Behaviors course taught by Columna. As a nontraditional student who has a young family and just opened his own strength training facility, Cooper values the program for the learning and experience he gained. Also, he says, it was a lot of fun. “I’ve been active in fitness my entire life, but this exposed me to aspects of the field that are completely new to me,” says Cooper, who assisted with skill-level assessments and planning. “And as the parent of a 4-year-old, I enjoyed seeing the different ways kids responded to me, and to the other SU students. One minute they’d be running away from you, and the next they’d be giving you a hug or pulling at you to take you across the gym.”

For Kaitlyn Wilkers ’17, a health and exercise science major and a member of the SU Dance Team, participating in the program helped affirm her career goals. “I loved the program. The kids were great to work with, and you could tell they were excited,” she says. “I want to be a pediatric physical therapist, so this was perfect for me. I’ve been a dancer since I was 3, so I was injured a lot. I was always at physical therapy throughout high school. And I just fell in love with it. And I love kids, so I want to work with them.”

The program for children with autism, made possible with support from the John Hussman Foundation and the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation, is the second facet of the Fit Families Program, which began two years ago with an offering for children with visual impairments. Both programs adopt a holistic and collaborative approach, bringing together experts from across the University and throughout Central New York. The exercise science team includes faculty members Kevin Heffernan, director of the Human Performance Laboratory; Michael Norris, an expert in aquatics and teaching strategies for children; and Tiago Barreira, a specialist in objective measurement of physical activity. Among the other SU collaborators are psychology professor Natalie Russo, an expert diagnostician for children with autism and director of the Center for Autism Research in Electrophysiology Lab in the College of Arts and Sciences; and School of Education faculty members Christy Ashby, director of the Institute on Communication and Inclusion, and Beth Myers, director of the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education.

Columna is also planning opportunities to replicate the programs in Texas, India, and Puerto Rico, and is working on offering them in other countries. He envisions continued expansion of the Fit Families Program, bringing together experts from increasingly diverse fields. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a full-service inclusive sport center at Syracuse University, where families from all over the world can come. “The feedback from families is always very positive. They tell us, ‘These students are phenomenal. This program is changing my life.’ It gives them some hope that sometimes they don’t have. They are used to all the time hearing, ‘Your child cannot do this, cannot do that.’ So when they come here, they get to say, ‘My child can do that. I didn’t know the potential that my child has,’” Columna says. “My dream is to open this door to more and more people. And I know we can do it. When we all work together, we can achieve great things.” —Amy Speach

Photo courtesy of Fit Families Program