Autism Awareness Month Week 3: Exercise


According to AutismSpeaks.org physical activity can produce some amazing benefits for those living on the spectrum. Improved motor skills, social functioning, skill-related fitness, muscular strength and endurance all benefit from some sort of physical activity. Daily exercise can also decrease stereotypical behaviors, hyperactivity as well as aggression.

Social Skills Analysis showed that those who participated in physical activity programs showed a significant gain in their social and communication skills with other participants. The study used the following activities; group play, running/jogging, horseback riding, Nintendo or WII games with physical activity. What they found was that when they designed the programs appropriately, they saw a safe and fun setting for the children to interact which allowed for better practice of social skills. The horseback riding helped the children interact non-verbally as well as verbally. They can practice social cues, initiating a conversation, holding a conversation and engaging in the activity while also discussing it with the other participants.

Fitness Youth on the spectrum showed a significant improvement in their muscular strength and endurance while participating in programs like swimming, horseback riding as well as the WII or Nintendo sports games. Strength and endurance is very important for anyone on the spectrum as they tend to have poorer muscular strength and endurance. These are important aspects to have not just for physical health, but also for the social opportunities that physical activity offers. A lot of times, solo sports may work best; tennis, rock climbing, kayaking, running/cross country, swimming are all great examples. Many individuals with autism tend to have lower fitness skills compared to other children in their age range. Skills that are needed are balance, body coordination, visual-motor control and other mobility issues that do not come easily to those on the spectrum. Focus on activities like jumping on a trampoline (with supervision), table tennis and horseback riding.

Motor Skills Fundamental motor skills are needed in many physical activities including; running, throwing and catching to name a few. Regular exercise programs will significantly improve these skills in those with autism. Research is still taking place looking at the type and duration of specific activities for those on the spectrum and what will provide the greatest benefit. Each person will be different, so finding the best activity for each person is key to adding to their overall health as well as encourage them to continue with their exercise throughout their life.

Strategies to encourage physical activity that is autism-friendly

Something to remember, those with autism do not do well in social settings that are active, loud and unpredictable. Encouraging a child to play alongside their peers at recess is like asking them to jump into a lava pit. Many autistic kids have a challenge with their motor skills, social skills and autism-friendly options for physical activity in our communities. Here are some quick strategies that can help you and your autistic child put regular physical activity into your daily regime.

1.      Small Steps a.      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that children should get at least one full hour of physical activity each day. If that sounds like a big step, break it down into smaller steps. Walking to and from school or the school bus counts. Walking the dog counts. Family walk or bike ride after dinner counts. Jumping on a mini trampoline counts. Playing hide-n-seek outside counts. All of these are little activities but they add up to be a lot of physical activity in one day. Play with the ratios and see what you can create for your family.

2.      Create Motor Skills a.      To be successful and/or build self-esteem, your child will need to build some fundamental motor skills prior to physical activity. Create some games that your child can do with you to build up these skills. Hopscotch is a great way to do this. Hopping on one foot while counting. Have them jump from number to number on that board. Have them run to the end of the yard and back tapping your hand each time they meet you. Have a skipping contest to see how far down the sidewalk they can skip. Use different types of equipment. Throw/toss different size balls; basketball, softball, baseball or football. Have them work on using all their fingers and muscles in their hands to catch it. Have them kick a soccer ball, slowly, around the backyard so they can follow it with their eyes and kick it with their feet. Have them use a tennis racket and tennis ball against the side of the garage or the back of a building. They should get the hang of hitting the ball hard or soft and seeing how it affects when the ball returns to them. Practicing these will help your child in their PhysEd classes, as well as boosting their self-esteem for going out for a sport at some point in their life.

3.      Try different types of activity a.      Studies have shown that a wide range of activities will deliver benefits to your child. Here are a few that are highly encouraged by researchers:           i.     Fitness: anything that creates moderate to vigorous activity. Running, hiking, skipping, hopping, jumping.         ii.     Social interaction: include activities that involve one or more people. Start small with tennis or table tennis. Catching a ball, any type of ball between two people then slowly add in a third and a fourth person. It may take a couple of weeks to get your child comfortable playing with more people. My son still loves to play four-square with his group of friends and that was a great game that built up his motor skills along with his social skills.        iii.     Independent play: choose an activity that can be done alone, like lifting weights, yoga, Pilates or running around a track. Sometimes the use of a video on what to do is helpful for your child to learn the proper way to hold a weight, balance on one foot or use the right muscles to support the back. They may learn better from a video having someone else explain it to them instead of you.

4.      Model an active lifestyle a.      As the parent, you are the best role model for your children. If you would like them to be more active, you need to be more active as well. Show them how good you feel when you come in from a long walk, bike ride or run. Explain to them how you are sleeping better and you feel better in your body when you can move it in different ways. b.      Enlist your friends and family to help. Look at who interacts with your child on a weekly basis and ask them to be a good role model too. Teachers, peers, phys Ed teachers or even therapists can all help in encouraging your child to be physical and try new activities. Share your wishes with the “team” or in our case, “village” to let them know what you have in mind and if they have any strategies to help incorporate more activity in your child’s life. If your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 plan, be sure you include physical education goals in the discussions. Invite the PE teacher to the meeting so they understand what challenges your child may face as well as some alternatives that they can provide during each class. Also, look at intramural or recreations sports programs in your community. Many will have the capability of accommodating your child’s needs and if not, offer to assist them until your child feels comfortable to advocate for themselves. You may be able to give your child the confidence they need by sharing your strategies for how to communicate during these games and also motivating your child to try something new.

5.      Practical strategies to make activities autism friendly: a.      Find someone who understands your child. Ideally, we want our children to have access to physical activities that are led by facilitators who understand how to communicate and motivate our kids in an autism-friendly manner. Unfortunately, not every activity is going to offer this. b.      Meet with the coach ahead of time and introduce your child. Explain your child’s strengths and where they may need some extra guidance and support. Find another peer who is also participating in the activity and understands how to communicate with your child and is able to provide some support when your child may need it. c.      Offer your child guidance on how to advocate for themselves. If they need a break, they will want to be able to tell the coach they need to sit and rest. It could be a sign that they give the coach like a “peace sign”, “thumbs sideways” or another one that they create so that the coach knows they are okay, they just need to rest. d.      Create a routine for your child so they are aware of when they are going to practice or a phys ed class. A visual schedule is most beneficial to those on the spectrum. Have your child help create their schedule using a calendar and cut out pictures of what they will be doing during that day/time frame. Visual task cards, videos and physical demonstrations will help tremendously with your autistic child. Once they learn the moves, they will continue with them and practice them. This will also help boost their self-confidence and self-esteem around physical activities.

Here are 5 exercises for autistic children. Remember to always remain calm and supportive when teaching your child a new exercise. They will not pick it up as quickly as a peer or sibling. Encourage them with positive reinforcement and guide them with verbal or hands-on cues so they are not frustrated and become upset

. 1.      Star Jumps a.      This exercise is a great full-body exercise that can help improve cardiovascular endurance. It will strengthen the legs and core muscles as well as provide body awareness in space.  b.      Begin in a squatting position with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms tucked in toward the chest. Quickly jump up from the squatting position, extending the arms and legs wide making an X with the body. On landing, return to the starting position with everything tucked in. Repeat this for 20 repetitions or until fatigued. If they tire quickly, add one more to it each day until they reach 20 and reward them for getting there.

2.      Crawl like a bear a.      Bear crawls can help develop body awareness, improve motor planning, improve coordination as well as build strength in the upper and lower parts of the body. b.      Start by kneeling on all fours, with hands under shoulders and knees under hips. c.      Extend legs until slightly bent and spread fingers wide to grip the floor. d.      “Walk” using your feet and hands across the floor approximately 10-20 feet. e.      Keep this position and reverse the walk. Switch up the speed and go in a different direction to help with body awareness in space. You may have to help with hands-on guidance if your child doesn’t understand to keep their hips lifted.

3.      Arm Circles a.      Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and arms by your side. b.      Extend arms out making a T keeping them at shoulder height. c.      Start making small circles, moving from the wrist first then keeping your arms straight. d.      Gradually make the circles bigger and move from the shoulder joint to create movement through the shoulder and back muscles. e.      Do 10 circles in one direction and 10 in the other direction for 10 reps.

4.      Move the “milk” a.      Moving weighted objects can increase core strength and balance as well as improve coordination. This exercise can also help stimulate brain centers that can increase short-term memory. b.      Fill a milk jug or a 2 Liter water bottle with either water or sand. c.      Have your child pick up the jug and move it to one corner of the room you are in. They will need to bend their knees to pick it up and have them “pull their belly button to their spine” to engage their core. d.      Have them return to the starting point. Decide the next area you want them to move it to and have them walk to the jug, pick it up and move it to the next area. You can create a “path” or strategy for them based on their needs and what would challenge them a bit. Have them move the jug at least 10 times and then rest. Have them reverse the “path” they took and come back to the beginning.

To Learn more about visual supports you can download the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network Visual Supports Tool Kit




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