Over the years, I have learned so much from other parents, advocates and neurodivergent people in our community. Just last week, I read a great post by Jess at Diary of a Mom (if you don’t already follow her, I encourage you to visit her page, as her thoughtful comments and insights really resonate with me and Kristina and encourage us to think differently).

In her post, Jess says she stopped in her tracks when she was listening to a talk and heard this: “Without opportunities for exercising self-determination, an individual loses their motivation to exert control over their life. Some skills, knowledge, and attitudes that support self-determination can only be acquired and refined through real-life experiences. If existing self-determination capacities are not practiced, they wither away.”  She then said, “the notion that self-determination is a muscle that can atrophy hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Wow! That is so true and resonated with me, as well. It made me think about the way I think about our son and the way I coach and work with our athletes at Inclusive Fitness to help  neurodivergent people and their families create long-term healthy lifestyles. I’m starting to zero in on three keys to doing that:

  1. Teaching the fundamentals of proper exercise and good nutrition in ways that work for our athletes
  2. Helping our athletes develop ownership over their own health and fitness so they are self-determining
  3. Establishing sustainable healthy habits that our athletes can integrate into their daily lives.

Equally as important to learning how to properly perform exercises is developing personal ownership – or self-determination – over one’s own health and fitness. Our first core value is Presume Competence. We believe that people learn to love what they master. By presuming that every athlete has the ability to understand, value and enjoy being physically fit, we hope to instill in them mastery over this important part of their lives.

How do we support personal ownership? At Inclusive Fitness, we think it’s by providing Options, Choice and Control. For example, every IF athlete begins each session knowing what exercises are “on the board” and working with their coach to choose the specific ones we will do. Then, we decide what order we will do them in and how many sets we will do of each exercise. We want our athletes – speaking or non-speaking – to make as many choices as they’re able and want to… this is their exercise program, after all!

But being presented with options and making choices, while necessary, is not sufficient when it comes to achieving self-determination. That’s because those options are typically set by someone “on the outside” instead of the person making the choices. To support self-determination, I think, requires that we first understand what it is.

One operational definition of self-determination is the degree of personal control an individual exercises over her or his life that they desire within those areas of life that are important to them.

I got this definition from the same presentation by Dr. Brian Abery that Jess listened to. Dr. Abery is the Co-director of the Global Resource Center for Inclusive Education and has researched neurodivergent self-determination at the University of Minnesota. (I recommend watching his 2013 talk on the subject).

Reiterating what Jess highlighted in her post, Dr. Abery says that…

  • All individuals are capable of self-determination.
  • Without opportunities for exercising self-determination, an individual loses their motivation to exert control over their life.
  • If existing self-determination capacities are not practiced, they wither away.
  • Embracing and encouraging self-determination requires a degree of risk because there is the real possibility that a person’s choices may not align with our expectations (Paraphrasing mine).

I think points are so important. How do we create ongoing opportunities and the right environment to support neurodivergent people in their journey to self-determination?

Here at IF, we start, as I said above, by providing options and choice. We try to take the next step by letting each athlete know that they have control over their exercise program. If they want to switch things around midway through our session, that’s fine! If they decide to do two sets of squats instead of three – or four instead of three! – that’s cool. I tell my athletes not to ask to take a break – just tell me you need a break and take it.

It’s important to point out that our goal is to teach people how to exercise and to make it something they do regularly. That’s why we’re here working together. So, NOT exercising during our sessions isn’t an option except in rare instances. But what we do and how we do it is open to interpretation and can take many forms. We’ll exercise, yes… but what that looks like is probably going to be very different from what we originally planned. And that’s just fine.

Ultimately, I think it boils down to respecting the individual, helping them understand what we’re doing and why, encouraging them to develop beliefs about what is possible and good for them, and giving them as much control over the experience and outcomes as possible.

So, what do you think? How can we create ongoing opportunities for self-determination and support neurodivergent people in ways that help them grow both physically, mentally, emotionally and socially? I’d love your thoughts.

If you’re interested in reading further, the article The Future of Self-Determination: Four Visions, offers some great perspectives.

We’ll continue the conversation as we think about how we help people establish life-long healthy habits, which is the third pillar in our approach at Inclusive Fitness.