5 Ways Fitness Can Improve Autism Symptoms
Fitness Can Improve Autism Symptoms
If you live or work with someone on the autism spectrum, you are familiar with the challenges of daily life. Many of the common symptoms of autism can be improved through regular physical exercise.
Fitness is a proactive approach to health that can prevent lifestyle-related diseases and complications including certain types of cancer, Type II Diabetes, and obesity. Having autism can make life difficult enough without the problems created by having a preventable medical problem. Fitness is also the ideal gateway towards better physical functioning, self-esteem, socialization, and initiative.
Fitness activities can be incorporated into the home, school, and therapeutic environments. They can be a great way to “break up” long periods of educational tasks. Including fitness activities in the classroom has even been linked with improved cognitive functioning through short term memory improvement. Here are 5 ways you can include fitness to improve on common symptoms in the autism population.
1) Sedentary to Super
Many young people with autism avoid physical activity and vigorous play. Not only do they not initiate these activities, but many do not have the foundational physical skills to push, pull, climb, run, jump, and throw. The key is to begin introducing fitness slowly and not make it seem like another task the individual “has” to do. I tell many of my clients to begin with 1 or 2 activities spread throughout the day. One hop, ball throw, or overhead push with a Sandbell. The next day, aim for two hops, throws, or presses.
This method can also be time-based. Begin today with 10 seconds of physical activity and go for 12 seconds tomorrow. By next month you could be up to 15-20 minutes of exercise each session or throughout the afternoon.
Individuals with autism who have been sedentary for a long time may not find physical activity exciting or enjoyable in the beginning. Adding in new exercises and increasing the amount and duration slowly will help greatly with the transition into a more active lifestyle.
Some of my favorite introductory fitness activities are medicine ball push throws (preferably with a soft med ball like those made by Dynamax), short hops, low hurdle step-overs, and overhead pushes with a light Sandbell or medicine ball.
Difficulties with peer interaction are one of the most well-known challenges for individuals on the autism spectrum. Promoting and teaching social skills through fitness activities is not only beneficial in the moment, but can generalize to novel situations leading to more enriched friendships and relationships. I’ve found that team sports are problematic from physical, adaptive, and cognitive perspectives. Individuals with autism often lack the foundational skills needed to perform the sport, are not motivated to participate, and the rules of the game can be abstract and nonsensical for the participant with autism.
Often in classes or with groups of young people on the spectrum, there are big differences in ability levels between individuals. Group fitness activities for young people with autism should be easily progressed and regressed (made more challenging or simpler) within a quick period of time.
Setting up exercise stations and having 2-3 individuals performing the activity is a perfect method for improving both physical fitness and creating opportunities for meaningful social interaction. Each activity can also be modified for the individual. For example, two sets of spot markers can be placed on the floor, one set further apart for longer jumps, and one set with the markers closer together for shorter jumps. This allows those with more advanced skills to continue developing lower body strength, while those with lower skill levels can begin at a more basic/regressed point.
Some of my favorite interactive fitness activities include: Partner rope swings, Med ball tosses with 2 or more participants, Frog hop partner jumps (I go, you go), Overhead heavy object carries (big rope or sandbag) with a partner
3) Stepping Away from Stereotypy
Stereotypical behaviors (often called “stimming”) are quite common to the autism population. These behaviors can be socially stigmatizing, and while they have a function, are not the most functional activities. Stereotypical behaviors have been theoretically linked to anxiety, compulsion, and hypo-activity. An increase in fitness activities can have a reductive effect on stereotypy.
Providing an individual with more functional options should be the goal of every educational and therapeutic protocol. So it is also with physical activities, where we can teach new movements and provide young people with new skill sets. Rather than pacing around the room, an individual who has a regular and appropriate fitness program may opt to do a couple minutes of exercise on his/her break or leisure time.
Some of my favorite exercise for the movement-seeking population include: Rope swings, medicine ball throws, Sandbell floor slams, Hurdle step-overs, and forward jumps
Self-regulation is a very important skill with tremendous social consequences or benefits for young people with autism. Having a physical outlet that is safe, functional, and preferred can, in addition to a positive behavioral support and social skills program, increase an individual’s ability to get through difficult situations (from waiting in line to interacting with peers).
Fitness activities also provide an alternative to some maladaptive behaviors (property destruction, peeling the flower petals off the plants, etc.)
Some of my favorite anxiety-reducing activities include: Sandbell slams, Jumps, and big rope swings
5) Gross motor deficits
It should be pretty apparent that fitness activities can improve gross motor skills. Many gross motor (the big movements such as walking, pushing, pulling, and bending) skills are problematic for young people with autism because they lack the strength and stability to perform these activities efficiently.
One of the biggest physical issues is compensation. The body will do what we “instruct it to do,” but a physical deficit will be costly. Suppose Janine needs to pick up a ball off the floor. She may be willing to complete the task, but does not have the lower body strength or stability to squat down and pick it up. Instead, Janine arches her back over to bend down and pick up the ball. This is the same movement pattern that, over time, causes back pain for millions of Americans.
If we teach Janine to squat properly, it may just carry over to other life skills (one of the main points of fitness to begin with). By engaging in a regular fitness program, Janine can become more physically adept and less likely to develop injuries due to poor movement, weakness, or instability. It is a proactive and preventative approach, much more desirable than having to deal with back pain in a few years.
My favorite activities for general gross motor enhancement include: Squat variations, Overhead pushing, Walking with weighted objects (Sandbells, Medicine balls) overhead, Bear walks, Hurdle step-overs.
I hope this article has illuminated some of the important benefits that fitness programs can have for the autism population. Be sure to check out the new PAC Profile Membership site at www.autismfitness.com.
Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS This article is an exclusive excerpt from Eric’s new E-Book, Bike to the Future: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children with Autism to Ride with Success. Available on www.autismfitness.com
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This post originally appeared on our September/October 2011 Magazine