Dec 09, 2011 0 Share

A Winning Match: Fitness and Autism


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Fitness and autism are rarely paired—and the pairing becomes less frequent as people with autism grow up. There are plenty of reasons for this; perhaps one of these rings a bell:

  • Parents and teachers of youngsters on the spectrum are often far too busy with therapies and doctors to think about physical fitness. 
  • Young people with autism are often challenged with poor muscle tone and difficulties with fine and gross motor coordination.
  • Most people think of fitness and team sports as interchangeable—and few people with autism have the social, collaborative and physical skills to do well in typical American team sports.
  • While there are a fair number of special needs fitness options for young children with autism, from the Challenger Division of Little League (which is open to students up until age 18 or until 22 if they are still in high school) to adaptive PE programs at school, such programs start to fade away as youngsters become teens and young adults. If no one has thought about transitioning from “special” to “typical” fitness options, young adults on the spectrum are often left with no options at all.

As the parent of a teen or young adult with autism, you may wonder whether there is any point in trying to get your child involved in physical activity. After all, it’s just one more item on the list of “have-tos,” along with “develop social skills,” “figure out an appropriate, safe and comfortable housing situation,” “find a vocational path,” and “pay for it all.” And if you’re not ready to take on your child’s physical fitness as a lifelong project, why get started at all?

Why Autism and Physical Activity Should Go Together

People with autism are no different from anyone else when it comes to the relationship between exercise and well-being. The sedentary autistic child becomes a sedentary teen and adult. Without exercise, people with autism are at the same risk as everyone else for issues such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure (to name just a few possible outcomes). Unlike many other people, though, folks with autism may not be sedentary out of choice, but rather because they are not encouraged or supported in physical activities that might be right for them.

Besides these general reasons for physical fitness, though, there are additional reasons why people on the autism spectrum can benefit more than others from regular exercise. According to Eric Chessen, an expert in autism and fitness, one benefit relates to potential gastrointestinal issues, caused—at least in some cases—by a severely limited diet. “With GI issues, exercise has definite benefits," says Chessen. "A lot of the research on GI issues suggests that kids on the autism spectrum tend to have really poor diets. Limited variation of foods and eating a lot of processed foods can have a severe impact. If you’re eating a lot of processed foods, you’re likely to have GI issues.”

The right exercise can also improve brain function, coordination and even memory, according to Chessen. General fitness can help with some of the more common gross motor issues you may see with your child. These include difficulties with gait, difficulty with leaning forward properly, or lack of muscle tone in the trunk leading to instability. 

Another important benefit can be gained from exercises that involve “crossing center line.” Just by reaching across their bodies, people with autism can exercise parts of the brain that may be weaker as a result of autism. Chessen explains: “Crossing center line means you’re using both sides of the brain—eliciting great responses in memory, motor planning and coordination. That’s an important skill to have. Rotational activities (reaching around the body) also involve doing a lot of crossing center line.”

Geraldine Dawson, Chief Science Officer at Autism Speaks, wrote a paper entitled  “Sports, Exercise, and the Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism” in which she notes that the incidence of obesity in children with ASD is higher than for neurotypical children. In addition, she points to findings that indicate that exercise provide behavioral as well as health benefits:

Research has also demonstrated that increased aerobic exercise can significantly decrease the frequency of negative, self-stimulating behaviors that are common among individuals with autism, while not decreasing other positive behaviors. … Behaviors such as body rocking, spinning, head-nodding, hand flapping, object-tapping, and light gazing, that have been shown to interfere with positive social behavior and learning, can thus be controlled by the use of exercise. Additionally, exercise can discourage aggressive and self-injurious behavior while improving attention span. … One theory behind these findings is that the highly structured routines, or repetitive behaviors involved in running or swimming, may be similar to and/or distract from those self-stimulating, repetitive behaviors associated with autism. 

In the United States, many people equate fitness—particularly for kids—with participation in team sports. In fact, many children and teens participate in multiple team sports, with practices and games scheduled for most days of the week. However, there can be drawbacks to this approach to general fitness—for anyone. Many children and teens struggle with the stress and competition of team sports, and exercise often ends up focusing on only those muscle groups that are relevant to the specific sports. For people with autism, these same concerns apply. Add to that the reality that most team sports require skills that are out of reach for most people on the spectrum, and it’s easy to see why so few people with autism are involved with typical team soccer, basketball and hockey. In fact, while some kids on the spectrum are involved with special needs sports, it’s rare that they are able to transition from special programs to typical team sports programs.

All that said, however, it is nowhere near as rare to see a child, teen or adult with autism active or even fully included in typical sports which require less team engagement and more individual achievement. Some top individual sports for teens and adults on the spectrum include martial arts, swimming, hiking and bowling. While all of these sports are great for people with ASD to do on their own, they are also terrific tools for building social and team awareness if they’re pursued in the context of a team or league. They can also become activities that the whole family can enjoy together.

Fitness, however, is not about sports. It’s about exercising and strengthening the entire body, building not only specific skills but also cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, and flexibility. No one sport, no matter how intensive, can provide a complete fitness program—unless it’s combined with cross training.

Fitness in the Ideal World

In the best of all possible worlds, everyone—autistic or not—would have a regularly scheduled fitness program incorporating every muscle group and including activities related to strength training and flexibility. While most of us don’t live in an ideal universe, it may be possible to create such an program for high schoolers through physical education classes. Some high schools offer a true physical education curriculum, and/or an adapted PE program, which actually teaches kids how to exercise, how to measure gains, and how to get and stay fit. 

It’s also possible, of course, to set up one’s own physical fitness program—and Eric Chessen has a wide range of activities that he recommends if you choose that course. His recommendations start with low-cost, high impact equipment such as medicine balls, jumping ropes, hurdles and cones. Exercise should be fun for everyone involved, so an elaborate set-up that costs money and looks like a medieval torture chamber is not only unnecessary—it may even be counter-productive!

Fitness in the Real World

In the best of worlds, your child with autism can’t wait to get physically active, there’s a great program locally, or you yourself have nothing but time and energy to create and run a fitness program at home (or to establish an exercise program at your child’s place of residence). But what if your teen or adult is a dedicated couch potato, you’re at work nine to five, and the high school or program where your child is spending his days has very little interest in physical activity?

The bottom line is, something is better than nothing—and something that’s fun is almost always better than something that feels like work. It’s also important to think about the purpose of the activity, so that it’s not simply movement, but movement with intent. To get started, then, here are a few possible directions:

  • Work with a physical or occupational therapist to set specific real-world goals and develop a plan with specific goals. Rather than using tools that are available only in institutional settings (such as a sensory swing or ball pit), it makes sense to introduce your teen to real-world options that may help fulfill his sensory needs while also building muscle tone. 
  • Pick an activity that appeals to you and your child, and stick with it. If you both enjoy walking, bowling, swimming, biking, etc., make sure it’s included in your scheduled time together. It’s a chance for both of you to get the exercise you need while enjoying down time together. If possible, add in a little stretching and cross-body movement as you warm up or cool down.
  • Tap into community programs that work on physical fitness with kids and adults with special needs. While a single sport or activity may not be the ideal, it’s far better than nothing. Depending upon where you live, you may be able to find a dedicated program; if not, you may be able to work with individual fitness trainers, coaches or instructors to find a good fit for your child.    

Assessing and Choosing a Fitness Program, Coach or Instructor for Your Autistic Teen or Adult

Instructors and coaches with “special” credential and “special” facilities are great, but often they’re very expensive. And the fact that they’re labeled “special” may or may not mean they’re better for your child than another option. Far more important than the specialness of their programming are two key factors: (1) is your child interested in the program offered, and (2) is it the right match for your child? In fact, if there is a typical sports, activity or fitness program available that works for your child, it’s probably a better choice in the long run; an inclusive experience means that your child is building not only physical skills and fitness but also building social skills and connections that will serve him well in the wider world.

Of course, teens and adults with autism are not “kids with autism,” and so some of the usual programs may be tougher to access, though some do serve young adults up to age 30. But there are still plenty of options—and the options you choose now will be available to your child for many years to come. A few possibilities to consider as you look around the community:

  • The YMCA: Y’s intentionally serve the special needs community and have a sliding fee scale. In addition, though, Y’s are for everyone. That means you can work out, swim or shoot hoops with your child—or not—and be a part of the same organization. There are no age or ability limits.
  • Special Olympics: Special Olympics is intended for developmentally disabled people of all ages, so your adult with autism will never age out of the program. Not every community offers Special Olympics, but where it’s available it’s a supportive, well-regarded program.
  • Equestrian Programs: Horseback riding can improve many physical issues, including balance, coordination, trunk strength and muscle tone. Your adult child with autism may enjoy therapeutic horseback riding, which is sometimes covered under your insurance. (Insurance typically will only cover this if provided by a physical or occupational therapist directly.) She may also be able to learn to ride in a non-therapeutic program, taking the process slowly, a step at a time.
  • Martial arts: Many people on the spectrum enjoy the martial arts, and many do well even in typical programs. The consistency, discipline and clear rules often appeal to people on the spectrum, and the opportunity to achieve and receive positive response from peers is great for self esteem.
  • Swimming: People with autism often love water. As a result, many are involved with competitive swimming, recreational swimming and swimming for fitness. Each option carries its own plusses and minuses. For example, adult competitive swim is serious business, and requires serious commitment. Recreational swimming can be great exercise, if it involves more than splashing around. Swimming in general is a terrific activity for people of all ages—and today it’s possible to get involved in a wide range of aquatic fitness classes and programs.

Before getting started with any activity, you’ll want to be sure that the instructor and program is right for your child. Of course you’ll go and watch the program in action, and you’ll ask for an opportunity to try out the activity a few times to see if it’s a match. In addition, you’ll want to ask the following questions:

Questions to Ask a Coach

  • What is the goal of this activity?  (Just for fun, building skills, competing, socializing?) 
  • Have you ever worked with an autistic person before?
  • What is your feeling about including a person with autism in your group? 
  • If this league or team is part of a larger organization (the Y, for example), do you have any resources available to you from organizational headquarters?
  • How would you feel about an aide or parent being present during practices and games to support the person with autism?
  • Are you willing to make use of materials we provide to support our child with autism?  (Often, parents can support their child with personalized visual charts, social stories and other tools.)
  • How would you handle __________?  (Fill in the blank with behaviors or concerns that relate to your individual child).

The Bottom Line

Exercise and fitness are not “extras” for an adult with autism. They are critical. While it’s possible to set up your own fitness or exercise program, and it can be fun and rewarding, it isn’t always feasible. When doing your own thing doesn’t work out, it may make sense to tap into professional or community programs for your teen or adult on the spectrum. By avoiding “team sports” and seeking out activities your child (and you) can truly enjoy, you can develop an exercise program that suits your family’s needs. What’s more you can do it all without breaking the bank. To get started on fitness and fun for your teen or young adult with autism:

  • Find out whether your teen is receiving all the physical education or adaptive PE he’s entitled to. Also be sure that he’s receiving appropriate physical therapy or other types of movement therapy if appropriate.
  • Check out the page on Physical Fitness on the Autism Speaks website. It includes a wide range of videos, resources and ideas.
  • Use your favorite search engine to explore programs in your own area. Alternatively, pick up the phone and talk to the folks at your local YMCA, swim club, martial arts center or stable. Explain your situation, and ask what they think might be a good match for your child. You may be amazed at what you learn.