Exercise, science, and the art of wading through information

Eric Chessen, M.S.

I was informed that this was the biomedical issue and immediately raised an eyebrow. Of course I wanted to write an article that provided some continuity with the overall theme; however I did not want to send my editor a 1,000-word shoe-horn job that somehow sandwiched exercise and biomedical intervention. My focus is to get young people with ASD moving well and to eventually enjoy doing it. Biomedical interventions range from the intriguing to the ridiculous. From the perspective of a fitness and wellness professional, there are some important considerations and methods for separating good information from poor.

When a fitness professional can look at an exercise and say “That is cool, but I do not have a use for it right now,” they have most likely reached a high level of professional development. The fitness industry is a big, steep bell curve that includes both caring professionals, and those who would better serve humanity as doorstops. Being able to discriminate between different kinds of information is perhaps the most essential skill to success in any field, particularly those with several or many factions. Information is generally presented in several forms:

I. This is new and nothing like it has been done before.
II. This is new and based on other available evidence.
III. This is old and based on other available evidence.
IV. This is old and no evidence is available.
V. This may be old or new and appears completely anecdotal.

I have plenty of information that validly supports the benefit of fitness for neurotypical, or general population children. The available evidence has been studied over many years, has been replicated in further studies, and provides a sound platform to state that fitness is important, for a variety of physical and cognitive reasons, for young populations. I have yet to discover any studies that explore the effects of fitness programs for the young autism population (although I will be involved in one such research program soon. Probably by the time you read this. In fact, I’m there right now). Given the available evidence that I have:

• Exercise is beneficial for young populations.
• Young people with autism often have gross motor deficits.
• Exercise can enhance gross motor skills and some cognitive skills.

I can infer that developing fitness programs for young people with autism is highly likely to be beneficial. In addition to the published evidence, there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of exercise. If one of my athletes practices squatting with a sandbell and two weeks later his parents report to me that he is performing that activity when I am not around, I will safely (and modestly) conclude that he has learned a new skill that has been mastered and become a preferred or reinforcing activity. This conclusion is based on anecdotal evidence, but fairly reliable anecdotal evidence.

I was giving a presentation to a small group of fitness professionals recently and mentioned the fact that there is nothing new in exercise. There are innovative concepts, creative ways of putting movements together, but if I go over there and figure out a new way to pick up that kettlebell in the corner, I know that someone did the same thing about a hundred years ago. Most “new” things, whether exercises, therapies, or the awesome meatloaf that I make with ground buffalo that I call “buffaloaf,” are innovations.
Innovation requires pre-requisites. Jumping over three hurdles and slamming a medicine ball usually requires a process of teaching my athletes with ASD to stand on spot markers, then jump over a single hurdle, then perform that action three times, then squat to pick up the ball until they have mastered the entire chain. Some, depending on their skill sets, will be able to perform the activity independently the first time and others may take a few months or years. What must always occur is the acquisition of pre-requisite skills before moving on to the more complex activity.

So a parent of a newly diagnosed child does a semester at “Google University,” which is a convenient though highly suspect education without much of a truth filter. The parent finds somewhere between four and 18,000 reasons why their child has autism, how it can be reversed or at least blown apart by a laser, and where to send the check. The most valuable asset a parent or professional can have when considering a therapy or educational program is objective analysis. Where is the information coming from? What is the scientific basis of the therapy? Are the results measurable? Who recorded the results? Who replicated them? Anecdotal evidence can take many forms. To paraphrase Darth Vader, “The placebo effect is strong with this one.”

Not having specific, direct answers is frustrating and stressful. Having experts who argue polar opposites over a topic can be almost as taxing as celebrity endorsements. I am still waiting to debate some other expert on the whole exercise for kids with autism thing, in the timeless words of Stimpson J. Cat, “I want to holler the loud funny words!” I am not opposed to new therapeutic modalities. I am not opposed to promising breakthroughs in medicine or supplementation. I am opposed to garbage science. There have been several enlightening books written on the subject, but to describe junk science in a single sentence, I would have to go with the following: building support around a pre-determined conclusion.

If something is new, and has never ever been done before, what exactly is it based on and how has it been tested thus far? If something is new and based on available evidence, how good is the current version? If it is old and no evidence is available, it is usually packaged as “used for centuries” possibly indicating that it has some benefit or that people have not become smart enough to stop doing it even after all these years. Objective review can read like an exhausting, annoying process, especially when I’m writing about it and quoting cartoon characters. Gather the available evidence and remember that you do not need all of the puzzle pieces to know that it’s a picture of a horse, just have enough to be sure it’s not an ass.

When we consider the future of the current generation of young people with autism, it is crucial to determine what educational, therapeutic, vocational, and wellness programs will provide them with the greatest opportunities and happiness. Take a few minutes away from the research lab (home computer room). Take your kids. Go outside or down to the basement. Jump around. Pick up heavy stuff. Throw it. Laugh. Reverse the order. Repeat. You’ve come across one of the best interventions around. I, um, invented it.

Courtesy Spectrum Publications

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