All kids need exercise, but there are specific reasons for autistic kids to get active: Autistic adults cite exercise as critical for self-regulation and helping to process their environment, exercise can provide social opportunities with less emphasis on verbal interactions, exercise can help moderate some medication side effects, and exercise can help moderate autistic kids' greater and earlier tendency towards obesity. But how do we get our kids moving?
The most important things to consider are our children's abilities and interests, so we can custom-tailor their exercise programs. The program doesn't have to be elaborate, and it doesn't have to be run by a professional. But it does have to have the child's buy-in, does need to consider their sensory needs, else why bother or expect them to participate? Here's an example of how to customize from Michael Ramirez, a physical trainer who sets up fitness programs for Autistics like author Ido Kedar:
"...one of my athletes likes to take string like objects and twirl them around. It is a self-stimulatory behavior. I used his motivation to stim on these objects, to introduce a heavy rope and create a system of functional movements that can be repeated. It turns 'rituals into repertoire.'"
We also have to be careful to monitor and possibly fight for inclusive physical education programs at our kids' schools, because even the best-intentioned administrators and P.E. staff do not necessarily understand how to best support disabled students' exercise needs:
The majority of teachers do not know how to include children with disabilities in their physical education programs.
Representative school bodies and physical education support organisations may have inclusive policies, but they do not necessarily provide direct services or the support to match.
Professional development opportunities and resources for PE teachers are very limited, and are not strongly promoted.
We are fortunate in that my son Leo is an active kid who enjoys hiking and swimming and trampolining, so we moved to a house where he can do all three whenever he likes (obviously not an option for everyone -- again with the "we are lucky"). He also plays on a seasonal AYSO VIP soccer team. So we thought we had the exercise angle covered.
Then a few months ago we got some interesting news from his endocrinologist. She told us that the medication Leo takes to help with self-regulation is also affecting his triglyceride levels, bringing them to a near pancreatitis-triggering level. The best approach, the approach with the greatest likelihood of allowing him to stay on his medication, was to increase his exercise. But -- again -- how?
And again with the luck. Leo's in-home therapist Victor happens to also be an athlete. Leo's home program supervisor M. was interested in developing a workout program for our boy. Together, they came up with the running program you can see in the following video. It includes warm up, stretching, and running itself, all guided by our guy's visual schedule and supported physically by Victor where needed. After just a couple of months, Leo is now running a 10 minute mile! And having a great time doing it, as you can see.
Running doesn't just help Leo with stamina and fitness, it helps him with self-regulation and sleep -- both increasingly important and unpredictable as he approaches his teen years. He's not the only autistic kid to reap these benefits from focused exercise. As Kristina Chew writes about her son Charlie:
"Physical activity (daily, aerobic) has been key to help Charlie with the regulation (to the extent he can) of behavior storms and even played a role in helping his speech and focusing"
Two of the other factors I mentioned initially -- socializing and preventing obesity -- are probably less important than the reasons detailed above for encourage active autistic lifestyles. Children who are overweight are not necessarily unhealthy, and not all autistic kids are interested in socializing, not even the parallel socializing that tends to happen with adaptive teams like VIP soccer -- though Leo son enjoys that part quite a bit.
The primary reason for encouraging an active lifestyle for your autistic child is to give them the gift of life-long healthy habits. If our children are indeed creatures of routine like so many other Autistics, then showing them how to exercise regularly and making it fun and motivating is setting them up for long-term success.
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