New KHPR faculty working to make physical activities accessible for autism community

While working as a physical education teacher at an elementary school in Michigan, Andrew Colombo-Dougovito, assistant professor in the UNT College of Education’s Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation department, made an observation. Children who had been diagnosed with autism often moved differently from their peers, even though they showed no outward signs of physical differences. The observation lit a spark — Colombo-Dougovito wanted to learn more about motor development in people with disabilities, and help those people access resources that allow them to be more physically active.

Colombo-Dougovito decided to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, spurred by a love of research he discovered while working on his master’s degree in special (adapted) physical education at Western Michigan.

“Research kind of fit my thought process — I like questioning why things worked. So it was a natural fit,” he said. “I decided to pursue that question of why people with disabilities move differently. And during my Ph.D. studies, I started to realize there’s not a lot being done to help these people move better. So that’s where my current research is focused – practical ways of improving motor skills.”

Colombo-Dougovito is using the research and teaching skills he gained during his time as a teacher and doctoral student to give UNT students invaluable insights into working with people with disabilities.

Teaching the Next Generation

Now in his fourth month at UNT, Colombo-Dougovito teaches a class on movement for individuals with disabilities. The course is an introduction to disability for kinesiology students, many of whom will go on to have careers in the health field.

“In many instances, unless they have a family member with a disability or have a disability themselves, most students aren’t exposed to the issues this population faces,” he said. “A lot of our students are ultimately going to go out and be physical therapists, occupational therapists, teachers – one of the biggest areas they’re going to need help in is working with individuals with disabilities. So this class gives them a taste of what they might expect once they get into the job field.”

Building awareness and understanding of disabilities is key to building a more accepting, adaptive society, Colombo-Dougovito said.

“Every person in a disabled individual’s life is a stakeholder — they’re going to have an impact — and we have to find ways to make it a more positive impact. We have to figure out a way as a society to be more accepting of people who have those differences,” he said. “On top of that, teachers, researchers and local community members have to find a way to give parents tools and resources to help their kids be more active.“

Current Research

In addition to teaching, Colombo-Dougovito is working on several research projects, the primary one focusing on adults with autism and their experiences with physical activity. Colombo-Dougovito and a colleague in California have interviewed around 20 individuals to determine what kinds of activities adults on the spectrum might be interested in trying but haven’t been given an opportunity, as well as how those activities might be adapted to meet specific needs.

“It’s really important to understand that if we can get people interested in doing activity, and give them the tools to be successful, that’s ultimately going to be the best benefit,” he said. “One of the things we weren’t expecting with this study was just how much interest we’d get. We’re just asking adults with autism to give us their opinion, and it’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to do that for so long.

“That’s one of the big things that has come out of the study: Just ask.”

Colombo-Dougovito said that by asking, he and his research partner have found that adults with autism find value in physical activity, but they have had bad experiences in the past, often during childhood. And that’s a problem – when people don’t enjoy physical activity at a young age, they’re unlikely to be physically active as adults, Colombo-Dougovito said.

“As early in life as we can, we want to make sure that people with autism find activities and skills that they’re competent in and that they can perform, feel comfortable with and enjoy so they’re more likely to continue,” he said.

And an added benefit to some physical activities: Independence.

“I think targeting things like bike riding is another important area we can focus on – it gives us fitness but it also give us a mode of transportation. If you give someone a mode of transportation, you give them independence,” Colombo-Dougovito said. “If a person with autism can ride a bike and navigate the road system, they have independence as an adult — they can bike to work, the store, the movies. The focus of any good motor skills-building program, while building what would be the fundamental skills, ultimately needs to focus on the lifetime activities.”

Working With UNT’s Kristin Farmer Autism Center

With his particular expertise in building motor skills, Colombo-Dougovito is working with UNT’s Kristin Farmer Autism Center, including Executive Director and COE faculty member Kevin Callahan and his staff, to create a program that will help KFAC’s clients be more active. Colombo-Dougovito said adding a comprehensive, sustainable motor program could elevate the center’s already impressive impact on individuals and families.

“A good motor skills program would give people the tools to live a good quality of life and be competent doing the activities they like,” he said. “And then we need to give them tools so that, in any city they go to, they can find resources and enjoy those activities.”

Colombo-Dougovito said motor skills programs should be based not on sports skills but lifetime fitness activities - things an individual can do when they’re young, as young adults and when they reach adulthood.

“While sports like football and hockey are great, ultimately you can only do them for so long. But skills like throwing, catching, swimming, tennis — those are skills a person can use at any age,” he said.

What’s Next?

In addition to working with KFAC, Colombo-Dougovito hopes to partner with UNT’s College of Visual Arts and Design to look at ways gamification and eye tracking could help improve physical activity in children with disabilities. Gamification is applying a reward system that motivates people to complete tasks — so, for example, the way many people use their FitBit to track who among their friends or loved ones gets the most “steps” each day. Eye tracking is the process of analyzing exactly where a person is looking while he or she is taking in information. Many people with autism have trouble focusing their attention during learning experiences or demonstrations, Colombo-Dougovito said.

“For kids with autism especially, when we’re trying to present skills, we often don’t know which part of our demonstration they’re looking at. A few of the studies have kind of anecdotally noted that the child may be focusing on someone moving from point A to B but not necessarily how they’re moving,” he said. “Eye tracking is a non-invasive way for us to see what they’re paying attention to, what part of our demonstration they’re looking at. And we can use that to find better ways to present information so kids and young adults can use it.”

Colombo-Dougovito also plans to continue his research with adults on the spectrum and start a new research project that compares early motor milestones — such as standing, crawling and walking — and fundamental motor skills that include running, jumping and throwing.

He’s also committed to research that examines the lifespan of individuals with autism, getting their input and discovering ways to improve their quality of life right now.

“There is a lot of important genetic research happening in the field of autism that could yield incredible findings in the future, but at the same time, we have all these individuals who have autism, who are here now, and that research isn’t going to benefit them,” he said. “What’s going to benefit them is us as a society finding ways to better include them and give them the tools they need to access everything the world has to offer.”

Colombo-Dougovito said that is truly the aim of his research.

“I don’t want to ever assume that what I’m doing is what individuals on the spectrum need or should be doing – I realize I’m not someone who speaks for the autism community,” he said. “But I recognize that people have issues accessing physical activities, or they have had a negative experience with physical activity, or no one ever taught them motor skills because there were other things that were deemed more important. And I’m hoping through my work that I can give people the tools to access that aspect of life if they want to engage.”