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Project Helps Autistic Young Adults

Psychology and Physical Therapy Team Up for Health

Young men with autism spectrum disorder and their instructors try out some ball exercises for fitness, balance and relaxation.

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Despite the increase in attention to autism, one group is often overlooked ߝ young adults. But, with a little help, high-functioning young people can develop their physical and social skills.

A new interdisciplinary program, “Fit and Fun: Promoting Healthy Lifestyles,” has been developed by Asst. Prof. Ashleigh Hillier of the Psychology Department and Asst. Prof. Deirdra Murphy of the Physical Therapy Department. Run for eight weeks in the spring semester, the project engaged undergraduate and graduate student volunteers: two exercise physiology majors, who designed and ran the exercise and relaxation activities, and two psychology students, who observed and evaluated results. Five young men with autism spectrum disorder, ranging in age from 15 to 27, were the participants.

“There are very few programs available for this population, especially in this age range, so we are very excited that we can offer this program,” says Hillier, who has developed a number of intervention programs for adolescents and young adults with autism. “Fit and Fun is a great opportunity for (the participants) to engage in physical activity, learn relaxation techniques and meet others they can potentially make friends with.”

The UMass Lowell students found the work interesting and challenging, but not every activity was successful. For example, jumping jacks was too complicated for the participants to perform.

“I had the pleasure of watching our students apply their classroom knowledge in a very real community setting, becoming comfortable and adapting as needed,” says Murphy, who has run many health and fitness programs for minority and disabled adults. “They will have greater capacity as professionals to open the door to ethnic groups and other marginalized adults.”

Parents of the autistic participants met in a focus group with the psychology students. One parent wrote, “My son loves coming. He adores the (exercise physiology) students and states he has been communicating with the other members of the program, which is a big plus for him.”

The Council on Teaching and Learning provided grant funding for the program, and the participants paid a nominal fee.