Research that empowers autistic children wins kinesiology professor national recognition

By Laurel White

Years of work breaking down barriers to physical activity for autistic children and their families have won a UW-Madison kinesiology professor national recognition. 

Luis Columna, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, was honored this summer with a prestigious research award from the National Consortium for Physical Education for Individuals with Disabilities. According to the organization, the G. Lawrence Rarick Research Award recognizes “a distinguished record of research” in the field. 

“I like to do things that no one else has done,” Columna said of his work, which includes the Fit Families program.

Luis Columna

Fit Families, which Columna rolled out at UW-Madison in 2020, is a research project that provides support to children with autism by helping them get more comfortable with physical activity. Deploying the expertise of professionals in exercise science and special education, among others, the program empowers autistic kids to do athletic maneuvers like throwing, catching, and kicking — skills that don’t come naturally. It also supports parents by providing guidance on at-home options for activity that involve the whole family. 

“It’s so cool, because there’s no other program like this,” Columna said. “We’re teaching the parents how to play with their kids.”

Unlike many other labs, Columna was able to successfully move the Fit Families program online during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, he offered a crucial resource at a time when demands on parents were at an all-time high. The program has since shifted back to in-person meetings.

“I listen to the parents, and they tell me what they need,” he said. 

The program is in high demand, with families clamoring to get access to the opportunity for physical, emotional, and social growth for their kids. Columna said one mother approached him in tears after a peer in the program invited her 10-year-old son to his first-ever birthday party for a friend. 

Columna has ambitious plans for Fit Families, if funding is available, including expanding the program across Wisconsin to communities that have less access to such support. 

In its award announcement for Columna, the National Consortium for Physical Education for Individuals with Disabilities also acknowledged Columna’s dedication to providing excellent academic mentorship to Latino/a students. 

Columna says there isn’t adequate representation in the field of physical education, particularly in high levels of academia, for Latino/a people — and he wants to change that. 

“You want to be with somebody who looks like you,” he said of the students he mentors. 

He says he works to give them the confidence and skills to thrive in a challenging field.

“That’s what I’d like to teach them — you can do it,” he said. “If I don’t do it, nobody will do it.”

Columna also noted an extra element of personal meaning in receiving the honor —the national award has deep ties to UW-Madison. The G. Lawrence Rarick Research Award is named after a highly-esteemed former UW-Madison professor. Rarick, a professor of physical education at the university beginning in the 1950s, was considered to be one of the nation’s leading scholars in motor development and motor performance for children, particularly children with disabilities. 

“He was a leader in the field, and he shaped the Department of Kinesiology at UW-Madison,” Columna said of Rarick. “He was a pioneer and  a visionary. He was doing things that no one else was doing.”

Columna, certainly a pioneer in his own right, said he is honored to follow in those footsteps.

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