Five Myths About Autism Fitness
Five Myths About Autism Fitness
Every time I speak at a conference or my own Autism Fitness seminars, I begin (following a brief introduction and deferring the “I thought you’d be taller…” remarks) with a demystification of what fitness is and why it is so important for the autism population. You see, we live in a culture that simultaneously promotes and glorifies fitness while restricting access to quality physical education and good information on exercise. If you were to close this internet window (not suggested) and type “Fitness” into your web browser, the results would end up in the millions. The quality results, well, that leaves a couple million sites in question. The same situation arises when searching resources and information on autism; plenty of sources and a lot of contaminants.
I frequently remark to friends, colleagues, and random strangers on the train that my professional position is that of a bridge between the autism population, families, therapists, and educators, and the fitness professionals, two great swaths of land that, for all of my knowledge, never had much contact. Not that the two should be exclusive. I’ve made some deep footprints in soapboxes arguing that regular exercise should be a part of every educational and therapeutic curriculum for young individuals on the autism spectrum. The hurdles in my way, and not the hurdles that I enjoy hopping and jumping over, have to deal with the current state of physical education, fitness, and physical culture in the U.S. On to some informational circuit training.
Autism Fitness Myth # 1: Children “Naturally” know how to move.
A neurotypically developing toddler can perform a perfect squat. Feet planted firmly on the ground, head aligned with the spine, knees slightly out, and torso at about a 45 degree angle. Five years later, a child has difficulty squatting and rounds the back to pick up an object. This may be an indication of some weaknesses in the major muscle groups, lack of trunk stability, and a few other less-than-desirable physical issues. Is this movement deficit supposed to happen? Or is there another problem?
Movement, including strength, agility, balance, coordination, speed, and endurance, is a set of skills that must be continuously taught and reinforced as a child grows. A comprehensive read through the available research will show a high incidence of movement deficits in young people on the autism spectrum. Movement deficits refer to poor ability to utilize and control muscular systems. It may be evident in gait patterns (walking, navigating stairs), poor posture, or trunk stability. Sedentary lifestyle patterns (lots of sitting with little variety in physical activities and a lack of vigorous physical exercise) can exacerbate the movement issues in both neurotypical and autism populations.
Years ago, when children actually spent time on playgrounds, demonstrating the magical power to fall, have it hurt a little, and get back up, movement skills were honed through random and energetic play. Jumping, hopping, skipping, climbing, pushing, pulling, throwing, and all variations and combinations of these patterns ensured further development of both the muscular and central nervous system. For young individuals with autism, vigorous physical play is often missing from the daily routine. Physical play skills require development through teaching and practice. I often explain that my method is based on “structured teaching to develop skills for randomness.” Children may explore, but there is a point where new abilities need to be initiated through instruction.
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