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Meeting the needs of all learners

The previous blog explored the pedagogical case of Kate, a six year old who was doing well in most areas of school except when it came to fine and gross motor skills. Looking through the lenses of motor development, and biomechanics we learnt that Kate struggled in comparison to typically developing children. By focusing on her self-esteem, avoiding competitive situations, giving her more visual cues and by practicing whole body movements the blog suggested that she could develop her motor skills. 

This week’s blog explores the case of Patrick, a seven year-old boy with autism. He is isolated from his peers and is caught up in the same movement patterns and habits. Exploring his autism through bio-psychomotor and adaptive physical education perspectives the blog suggests a number of ways of helping Patrick to develop. It suggests that understanding and consistency can lead to significant improvements in both his approach to and engagement in physical activity.


Volume 2.4:

MacPhail, A., Campbell, M., Kenny, I., Tindal, D., & Tannehill, D. (2014). Patrick: Watch, practice, perform, reward, meeting (special) learning needs. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 49-62). London: Routledge.



Patrick is a 7 year-old boy with autism who is keen to stay, very often rigidly, within familiar structures and routines. He dislikes change and doesn’t like to change his chosen behaviour; even when that behaviour is one that could cause him harm or could harm others. There is no physical reason why Patrick can’t be successfully involved in physical activity. However when he is engaged in the university-based i-PLAY (Inclusive Play and Leisure Activities for Youth) programme, with the individual support of two pre-service teachers, he prefers to rigidly (and with no deviation), and repeatedly pace backwards and forwards between two benches rather than take advantage of the range of activities occurring around him. Indeed, he seems completely unaware of (or unconcerned with) what takes place in the multi-purpose sports hall.

From the perspective of those who care for him (both his family and the two pre-service teachers) he show very few visible signs that he enjoys being involved in either i-PLAY or physical activity. At home he is closer to his sister, who is more patient and allows Patrick to perform tasks over and over again, rather than his two brothers. At i-PLAY he is happiest when he is close to the two pre-service teachers and when he is allowed to adhere to his routine. He doesn’t demonstrate much in the way of emotion about his feelings towards or relationships with his peers either in terms of his engagement or language. He has difficulties with language, and social communication and avoids eye contact but craves sameness and structure. When this is challenged Patrick is prone to exhibit his strong will through bouts of out-of-control behaviour (which can involve striking out with his hands) until he calms down.


The Pedagogical Case

MacPhail and colleagues initially explore Patrick’s pedagogical case from a bio-psychomotor perspective and suggest that he demonstrates four key characteristics stereotypical of people with autism: reduced interactions, repetitive nature, akinesia muscle rigidity (slowness in the initiation of movement) and bradykinesia (slowness in the execution of movement). The key is to overcome these and engage Patrick in physical activity. To do this, from a bio-psychomotor perspective, it is important, and highly desirable, to encourage Patrick to physically challenge himself to improve his motor abilities. If such an improvement was made then, as teachers, we could expect his “personal well-being, confidence, [and] motivation to improve” as well as, ultimately, his social interactions with peers.

Two elements that Patrick would immediately benefit from improving are his gait and his balance. Because autism presents itself in different ways (such as alterations in motor development milestones, decreased muscle tone, difficulty with voluntary muscle control, slow movement, and postural control impairment) it is important to try and ensure optimal functionality and independence. Using a 20 metre strip of white tape to limit his range of movement MacPhail and colleagues suggest that Patrick could be ask to perform the familiar task of pacing backwards and forwards between the two benches. The addition of the white tape in the first instance (and then a metronome to enhance the rhythm of his gait) would give a purpose to his pacing. Furthermore, through the use of a watch/practice/perform/reward system, real term gains in performance could be monitored.

By watching firstly the teacher and then himself pacing the 20 metre course (which might eventually be raise on to a bench top to increase the difficulty) Patrick could gain a sense of his actions. Then through practice and assessed performances (in which he tries his absolute best) Patrick could begin to see how he is improving. Finally through the use of reward and motivation charts and celebrations by the teachers every single achievement could be noted. If Patrick were given half an hour a week for nine weeks to complete this task (and an associated one foot balance task that is noted in the chapter) then he would have a real focus for his personal development.

Changing focus, the authors explored Patrick’s experiences and autism from an adapted physical education perspective. They suggested that he was exhibiting Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), which is characterised by impairment in several areas of development: social interaction and communication skills, and the presence of stereotypical behaviours, interests and activities. However, despite these impairments “daily vigorous, aerobic exercise is beneficial for students with autism [as it] reduces self-stimulatory and off-task behaviour, increases time on academic and vocational tasks, and can help to improve gross motor performance.”

To facilitate his engagement in physical activity the authors suggest that the pre-service teachers engage him in meaningful activity that requires constant communication. Such a system requires five components to be in place:

  • The physical structure of the environment
  • The scheduling of the person’s overall day and week
  • Expectations of how the person will work during tasks
  • Routines incorporated within a learning environment
  • Visual schedules to assist in the actual structure of the learning session.

MacPhail and colleagues highlighted the particular importance of visual schedules or a “picture exchange communication system.” In such a system Patrick would be allowed to exchange an item or experience for what he want to do. For example (and using the bio-psychomotor perspective above) Patrick and the pre-service teachers would engaged in an ‘if/then’ exchange i.e. he could swap a number of attempts over the white line in exchange for something he wanted to do.

Drawing these ideas together and focusing on Patrick as a pedagogical case MacPhail and colleagues suggest that understanding must come first. By acknowledging that he prefers repetition, sameness and structure and that he avoids change and social interaction is key to understanding not only where to progress his learning to (for example, towards an acceptance of change and interaction) it also lays down a sense of where the teacher can start. The authors suggest that effective teachers are “active teachers who keep students consistently engaged in learning tasks” and this appears to be what Patrick needs. That said modifications to his programme could, with adaptions, serve the needs of many students in physical education. By constraining and/or increasing the complexity of the task and the environment then the performer is ‘forced’ to adapt as well.

The answers are not simple but they require more than a tweak here and there. To fully engage Patrick and bring him into the learning environment the teacher needs specialist understanding and the ability to make changes. Unfortunately adaptive physical education is a minority aspect of many teacher education courses and the workload of teachers is such that such professional development is hard to come by. Patrick, and children like him, is in the minority and therefore his needs (like teacher’s need for understanding and subject knowledge in this area) are often marginalised in favour of more obvious and pressing needs.


What’s next? As part of this blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor. Her help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.

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On Sunday 18 January at 18:01 @ImSporticus said
Hi Ash. Thanks very much for this post. I have a Year 9 student who I'm struggling with to get him engage within the lessons. I have spoken to hi mother at length, and they are currently going the process of having him assessed. Many of the issues he has are shared with Patrick in the post. I feel I'm pretty good at adapting the learning environment to ensure all students are getting something out of the lesson, however this case requires much more than my current knowledge and experience. An issue I can't get right is that if someone who is not given direct responsibility to lead something in lessons, tries to take control (something we actively encourage to develop leadership) he will switch off and completely disengage from the lesson. He will walk on the spot and constantly rub his hands. It makes him very angry that a student would assume to lead other students, as they do not have the authority. This frustrates other students around him, as they feel he isn't joining in and being part of a team. Trying to educate the other students of his behaviour is quite difficult at times, as they see a lack of consistency in my behaviour management when I try to deal with him. I shall speak to his mother and our SENCO about the 5 components of active communication and see if we can together implement something successful to keep him safe, active and happy within my lessons. Adaptive Physical Education is not something I've ever heard of in my career, and I think should defiantly be part of teacher training and further continual professional development. Do you have any ideas of where these courses might be run?

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