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Are all your autism and/or neurodivergent athletes motivated all the time? Likely not.

“my son/daughter/students/clients aren’t motivated to exercise” is the most common question/lamentation I get.

The Meaning of Motivation

To understand the solution, we have to reframe the question and consider what is meant by “motivation” and “exercise.” At the risk of answering a question with another one, we do have to find out…

  1. What is meant by “motivated” or “unmotivated”
  2. What do we mean by “exercise?”

While the answers to each may initially seem conventionally obvious, this is seldom the reality.

Motivation being the single biggest obstacle in fitness and adapted physical education programs for the autism and neurodivergent population, there is still a remarkably unaccounted amount of information needed to overcome the challenges, both for the coach (professional and/or parent) and the individual.

Motivation is not a simple, binary state. Rather than “motivated vs. unmotivated,” there is a gradient scale that varies across individuals, specific exercises/activities, and often changes during or between sessions.

“J,” one of my Autism Fitness athletes, is fine with doing two sets of squats or Sandbell presses, however he will begin to protest about more.

“I am not doing four sets, four sets is way too many!,” he’ll say on his break between exercises.

“You did four sets last week,” I offer. “What makes four sets too many this week?”

J might come back with a simple “It’s too many,” or, “Well I am not doing four sets.” Clearly my questions won’t automatically motivate him. That isn’t the function. I want to gauge how committed he is to not doing sets three and four.

We want to respect our autism and neurodivergent athletes, taking their experience into consideration when creating and implementing their fitness programs. Also, there are other factors.

While J states he won’t be doing more than two sets of presses, this may not be a definitive declarative statement. For J, saying he won’t do the presses might serve as…

  • A way to verbalize his anxiety about doing more exercise
  • His way of gauging how much autonomy he has during the session
  • Perseverative thoughts being verbalized. It may be J’s way of saying, simply “I don’t like this a lot.”

In addition to the complexity of neurotypical motivation, we have the challenges that come with autism pertaining to thoughts, feelings, and communication. J is certainly saying something clear, but “I’m not doing four sets” may not actually mean “I’m not doing four sets.” This is also, to further complicate things, contextual. This is one individual in one environment with one coach.

The point is that rather than motivated/unmotivated we have to examine the factors that are contributing to an athlete with autism doing the exercise or not doing the exercise, and finding a plan that will enable and enhance their resolve to engage.

Many, many individuals with autism and related neurodiversity are hesitant/resistance to participate in a new activity, often when there is a sense of “demand” being placed. The exercise itself, whether medicine ball throw, hurdle step, or squat, is less aversive than the situation; someone is asking/instructing me to do something.

The relationship between a coach/instructor and athlete with autism must be considerate. While the session needs to serve the function of introducing exercises and enhancing physical abilities, there’s no “forcing fitness” both for issues of ethics and sustainability.

The other side of this, still within the practice of respecting the athlete, is the need for structure; the session cannot be so open-ended that nothing gets done. So we need to create a situation in which the athlete has enough autonomy to feel comfortable and sufficient instructional control to provide a meaningful fitness/adapted PE session for the athlete.

This scenario may not be ideal for weeks or months with certain athletes, as their adaptive/behavioral needs take precedence over implementing a comprehensive fitness program. An athlete who requires breaks every two minutes of a session to self-regulate is unlikely to perform any of the exercises at a level of control or intensity to create a training effect, when the muscles and neuromuscular system adapt/improve.

For the purposes of implementing successful fitness and adapted physical education programs for the autism and neurodiverse population, motivation is composed of these two elements;

  1. The amount of engagement an individual sustains in one and/or multiple activities
  2. The presence of observable enjoyment or aversion to those exercises/activities

What Influences Motivation?

A combination of factors influence adaptive, or motivational levels. We may observe off-task or preservative behaviors among our athletes from fixation on topics to wandering, to greater intensities of escape-maintained behavior including meltdowns, eloping, self-injury, and aggression. Despite contrary labels, these are all “functional” behaviors in that they serve a purpose. Whether they are the healthiest or most beneficial options is a separate matter.

Providing a “functional alternative” to a particular behavior means a different communication (verbal, visual, tech, etc.) Having a reliable functional method of communication can often decrease the incidence of maladaptive behaviors, lowering anxiety and frustration, while increasing the quality of interaction between a coach/instructor and the individual with ASD.

With respect to exercise, we often observe the greatest level (amount and intensity) of maladaptive behaviors in the first few sessions. This is a

Lower motivation can definitely impede physical performance in a variety of ways. It is critical to have a plan and structure that works for the athlete. One of the biggest differences between our autism and neurodiverse athletes and neurotypical is the sustained level of motivation.

Whether we’re talking about a single set or throughout the session, encountering pervasive or off-task behavior is typical.

So what options do we have to coach for success during these off-task situations?

Strategies for Increasing Motivation to Exercise

Given that working with individuals will often require individualized approaches, there are a few general strategies that can prove successful to increase motivation for individuals with autism and related neurodivergencies to engage in and increase a positive attitude towards exercise activities.


Choice is an integral part of reciprocity between coach and athlete. Providing choice between exercises removes the adversarial potential of “Do this” when providing instruction. Instead of a “do this” contingency, we can offer options.

“Do you want to start with hurdle steps or cone touches?”

Three things are happening here. The first is structuring the session. It can start with one of two exercises; the hurdle steps or cone touches. The second is offering choice between two exercises. The third is the implied contingency; There are two options, you can pick which one you want to do first.

Choice is respectful of the athlete while still setting the structure of the program. It is not a choose-whatever-you-want (which is unlikely to yield a favorable outcome), nor authoritarian (do this now).


Contingencies are if/then relationships between time and actions. Most frequently in Autism Fitness programming, we use contingencies to reinforce the timeline and set an expectation for performance and follow-through. For many children, teens, and adults with ASD, contingencies need to be exceedingly clear and evident early in programming.

“First you have hurdle steps, then you can take a one minute break.”

That is an example of a highly specific contingency that we use in a session. We may incorporate a visual schedule, choice board, or social story/narrative to provide am additional communication and point of reference for the athlete. While we may start with these rote, specific contingencies early and often for new athletes, or athletes new to fitness, over time and with increased familiarity to the exercises and program, we can begin to fade the use of verbal reminders.

Contingencies provide a clear indication of expectations around performance of the exercise and reinforcement, either in the form of access to a break/preferred activity, or to another exercise (that also may have preference over the first).


Consistency of program structure, language, environment, and expectations is essential to increasing and sustaining motivation over time. Discussed earlier in this article, the premise that the individual with ASD “Hates to exercise” must be met with a two-part response;

“What exercises did you try and how many times have you tried them?”

The potential scenarios here are numerous. Let’s suppose a basic, straightforward situation;

A coach/instructor starts a fitness program for a teen with autism. The instructor says

“Start on the treadmill, walk for five minutes”

The teen with autism declines/refuses to use the treadmill, they try this session once more and “determine” that the teen simply “hates to exercise.”

Inappropriate exercise selection, poor communication, and inconsistency, especially in the initial/introductory stages of fitness programming for those with ASD, will likely result in failure. Declaring, on the teen’s behalf, that they hate to exercise fails to take into account everything missing from providing a high quality, individualized experience.

Consistency in programming for the ASD/neurodiverse population serves three important functions;

  • Lowering anxiety by increasing familiarity
  • Increasing physical aptitude through routine practice and increased volume (sets and repetitions)
  • Greater opportunity for generalization as a result of training effect and neuromuscular development

While the notion and practice of variety may seem appealing, it works antithetically for most individuals with ASD. Rather than a wide array of exercises, there is far greater benefit in focusing on a few that develop the essential movement patterns (squat, push, pull, carry, hinge, locomotion).

Consistency is the difference between giving up because the first two or three sessions prove behaviorally challenging and sessions weeks or months later being productive and reinforcing. Consistency must exist among all three variables; physical, adaptive/behavioral, and cognitive.

Demystifying Motivation and Autism

Providing fitness programs for the autism and neurodivergent population is not without challenge. Fitness being a crucial component of life skill and quality of life development, we must implement strategies and programs that both respect the individual and provide the structure necessary for beneficial outcomes.

While motivation cannot be dismissed as a non-issue, asking the right questions and having appropriate, evidence-based, and individualized strategies can make significant differences in short- intermediate- and long-term fitness programming for the ASD/Neurodivergent population. In Autism Fitness programming, we set these standards for our coaches to have the greatest impact on those they serve.

Eric Chessen, MS, Founder, Autism Fitness



We are super excited to be offering Eric Chessen’s Autism Fitness course, which will be held on 25 May 2023.


  • Why Fitness is Essential for the ASD Population
  • Common Physical and Motor Deficits
  • Understand Physical, Adaptive & Cognitive Abilities
  • Addressing challenging behavior
  • The BIG difference between Can’t vs Won’t
  • Assessment of Physical, adaptive, and cognitive skills via the PAC Profile
  • Program Development for Individuals and Groups
  • Goal Setting in each of the 3 Areas of Development
  • Positive Behavior Support
  • Progressions and Regressions of Exercise
  • Program Development for individuals and groups
  • And putting it ALL together during the live, full-day hands-on practical!

Go here for more details and feel free to contact us at