Syracuse University Fit Families Program To Include Children with Autism

The Syracuse University Fit Families Program for Children with Autism, a research-based physical activity program for families with children with autism ages five to 10, is currently accepting applications for its five-session workshop beginning in March 2016.

Thanks to the generous support of the John Hussman Foundation and the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation, Luis Columna, associate professor of exercise science in the School of Education, along with a team of professors, students, and experts from in and around Central New York, will begin working with children with autism and their families to promote physical activity and research the correlating effects of an active lifestyle. The Syracuse University (SU) Fit Families program for children with autism, an offshoot of the SU Fit Families Program for children with visual impairments, was developed by Columna two years ago and was supported by the J. Henry & Martha E. DeBoer Fund at the Central New York Community Foundation and the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation. The overwhelming support and success of this program is what prompted Columna to include other disabilities, this time focusing on children with autism.

Exercise Science student works with a child in the pool during a Fit Families sessionThe program for children with visual impairments was innovative, providing exceptional opportunities to the children as well as their parents. Using a holistic approach (developing different levels of the whole person) SU Fit Families parents attended theme-specific workshops (i.e., orientation and mobility, physical activity and motor development, aquatics, and sports)while physical activity skills were taught to the children. The parents and children then worked together with professionals, to practice their new skills.Through this symbiotic collaboration, the children became physically active and the families were provided with the tools and skills needed to feel confident working with their child in this setting, thus, promoting physical activity for the entire family.

“The Fit Families Program is ultimately about giving hope and confidence,” says Columna.“This new edition of the program for children with autism works under the same premise.”

Implementing such an ambitious expansion plan is no easy task, but Columna has a vision and a team of experts to make it happen. The team of professionals providing expertise and services for children with autism and their families includes Natalie Russo, assistant professor of psychology, who is an expert diagnostician for children with autism and in the use of visual strategies for treatment.  Kevin Heffernan, assistant professor and director of the Human Performance Laboratory, Tiago Barreria assistant professor and expert in objective measurement of physical activity, and Michael Norris assistant professor and expert in aquatics and teaching strategies for children, are all from the exercise science department; and Christy Ashby, associate professor and director of the Institute on Communication and Inclusion (ICI) and Beth Myers, research assistant professor and director of the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education are among the team of School of Education colleagues participating in the SU Fit Families program.  Columna has also enlisted the aid of physical activity experts from around the United States along with students in the School of Education’s physical education and exercise science programs to support the families and collect data throughout the program.

Forty families with children between the ages of five and ten with autism will take part in the SU Fit Families program during the next two years. This is a significant expansion from the visual impairment model, which included twelve families over two years. Each family will participate in a series of five theme-specific workshops, including sensory integration and behavior management, physical activity, aquatics (swimming), and sports. Columna has long been an advocate for social justice and diversity issues. His scholarly work and service activity have focused on improving physical activity opportunities for children with disabilities and their families. In addition to running the program in Syracuse, Columna is replicating the SU Fit Families programs for visual impairments and autism in India and Puerto Rico and is working on starting such a program in China and other countries.

The SU Fit Families Program for children with autism starts this spring with sessions continuing into fall 2016, and is currently accepting applications. Families with children with autism between the ages of five and ten who may be interested in participating should apply online or contact Luis Columna at with any questions.