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Exercise is vital to a healthy lifestyle for kids with autism

Bradley Seth McNew Autism Health Through Exercise: Understanding Special Exercise Needs
Exercise is vital to a healthy lifestyle for kids with autism

While typically-developing kids may be involved in numerous team sports, athletics and social playgroups, kids on the autism spectrum don’t always have these opportunities. This is one reason why the population of kids with autism has a 7 percent higher rate of obesity than the general population. While the end goals are the same for all kids, the approach needed to achieve a healthy and active lifestyle may be very different for kids on the autism spectrum.


Do assess current levels

The overhead squat assessment is a tool used by personal trainers to check the posture of a client in one easy maneuver. It’s a great tool for kids with autism because it often identifies common postural checkpoint issues that many kids face. The proper squat is performed in this manner: Feet are facing forward, knees are not turned in or out, low back and stomach are straight, back is more or less parallel to the shins, and arms are in line straight above the head.

Have your child perform the overhead squat and go through these checkpoints, helping them to correct the points that are out of alignment. When there are points out of alignment, ask them to stand up and try again, explaining the requested action and guiding them to properly perform the exercise.

Do try new kinds of activities

When working out becomes too repetitive, it can have adverse effects on the athlete. Not only mentally (boredom and lack of motivation), but the body has less to adapt to and eventually plateaus in fitness gains. For a child on the autism spectrum, it is important to experiment with different forms of exercise. For example, karate and martial arts are positive exercise outlets for kids on the autism spectrum for several reasons, including:

  • Martial arts is a great environment for kids to experiment with balance and unique body positions and tasks, such as jumping and kicking, or standing on one leg.
  • Karate enhances social assertiveness and cooperation by teaching humility and respect, while still promoting self empowerment and confidence.
  • Relying on focus to perform a set of physical tasks makes the skills learned in martial arts transferable to other life applications, such as focusing on tasks in school or at home.

Many martial arts studios offer programs for students with special needs. However, if there is not a studio close to your home, consider hiring an instructor for a private lesson, or learning karate techniques at home on Youtube and applying them to your child’s learning style. Be sure to show your support by doing the karate skills alongside your athlete.


Do use checklists

To help kids understand their own fitness needs and develop exercise habits, it is important to keep them in the loop on their progress. Checklists can help. Be sure to explain the checklist and the reason for the checklist before getting started. This will help promote understanding of the goals. Keep weekly checklists and make each week different to keep things fresh and entertaining. This will give kids something to look forward to in their exercise tasks.

Keep the checklist in plain site, and show it off to friends and family. Make the checklist something for your child to be proud of. Allow your child to put a checkmark or sticker on the sheet, as this will add self-motivation and control to the procedure. And keep a space at the end for your child to make up his or her own exercises. Because this is about self-habit formation, give kids the creative space to make up exercises that they want to do.

Do use familiar household objects and settings

There are tons of resources around the house that can be used as exercise equipment. Using these household items will make the exercise more comfortable and easily adaptable. For example, if you want to have your child perform a hurdle exercise, use a foam noodle, bean bag, small stuffed animal, piece of cloth or actual small hurdle that can easily tip over. It is the visual of something that needs to be jumped over that is important--and assuring that the participant doesn’t trip.

Do get active in the community

It is important for parents to understand their childrens’ health needs and to provide ideas and activities for their children to overcome health issues. To get active about reversing the trend of obesity in children with autism, parents must spread the word. They must educate not only their network of support, but also other parents in the autism community, and get serious about this problem.


Do not give up

The implications of dysfunctions in certain physical and mental developmental areas can equate to lowered activity levels and becoming easily fatigued or easily distracted. It also can mean that children with autism fluctuate between these extremes and can be hard to predict. Becoming frustrated, aggressive, sad or withdrawn are all common.

The goal is to eliminate environmental senses and stressors that are not consistent with the desired exercise outcome, as well as to increase the motivation techniques that help support proper exercise. It is vital to change the necessary environmental stressors that lead an individual to giving up.

Do not neglect sensory issues

The proprioceptive system, which you want to focus on for exercise purposes, refers to the muscles, joints and tendons that provide awareness of body position. When proprioception is functioning properly, a person’s body position is integrated into their sensory awareness and can be automatically adjusted. For example, the propioceptive sense helps us to step down a stair smoothly, or to judge the necessary speed to sit in a chair. This sense also helps with fine motor skills, such as writing with a pencil or buttering a piece of toast. Issues with the propioceptive sense are evident through clumsiness, falling often without being able to catch oneself, odd body postures, difficulty with dexterity, and apprehensiveness with new motor skills.

Some kids have issues with sight. Sensitivity to bright and flashing lights or objects moving quickly in the exercise area can sometimes cause too much stimulation. Try to move toward an area of the gym or exercise room where other people are not running or throwing things. Try to dim the lights during your exercise times or seek out natural lighting. If these options aren’t available, move toward a corner of the exercise area and face the corner, eliminating distractions.

Hearing is also a problem for some kids. While loud music is a staple of most people’s workouts, loud and/or fast-paced music may cause too much distraction and simulation. Kids with autism may be unable to filter multiple sounds at once, which can make it hard to focus. First, try eliminating extra noise, such as turning off music. However, the silence may also be distracting, so find music with a slower beat and less percussion. Finding the right music may be a good way to associate exercise with something kids already enjoy.

Additionally, touch can be a breaking point for many kids with autism. The feel of a cross-stitched trampoline mat can be a great sensation on kids’ feet, while the feel of chalk on the mats can be completely devastating. Find the sources of distress and try to remove it.

Smell is another potential problem. Because some people smell when they exercise, gyms often try to mask the smell with bad-smelling air fresheners. While sweat is natural, lilacs mixed with aerosol and rubbing alcohol is not. Ask for better ventilation and airflow as a means to control scent and to eliminate any artificial air fresheners. If this isn’t possible, try to open a nearby window or door to get the scent as neutralized as possible.

Do not spend a lot of money on expensive exercise programs

Save your money for expensive physical therapy programs and other medical necessities. For exercise purposes, a shoe-string budget is more than enough.

Do not use unnecessary equipment

Do not purchase unnecessary exercise equipment. Not only is it expensive, but it is typically uncomfortable and unfamiliar, making it a potential distraction during exercise. Using common household items will make the process more familiar and likely easier to follow.

Do not lose sight of your goal

Get active and play. The best treatment for children, especially overweight children, is to get up and play. While this is more of a challenge for kids with autism because socializing and being on their own may be difficult or dangerous, it is very important. The best practice is getting out in the back yard, walking around the park with a parent or dancing in the living room. Anything works as long as it is active. Remember: the goal is increased activity with higher intensity and duration as time goes on.

Jumping cartoon

Exercise is extremely important for kids, whether it takes place in a class setting or at home. Be sure to make the exercises appropriate for your child by changing the movements, environments or progressions. And meet other families. Spread the word to help motivate and encourage others. Help get the families in your circle excited about working with their kids to have an active and healthy future.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: Grand Final Sirkit Olahraga 2012 by durrah03; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Bradley Seth McNewAutism Health Through Exercise: Understanding Special Exercise Needs

Hi, I’m Seth. I’m fortunate that I get the amazing opportunity to work with this incredible population and help our community to reach better fitness goals, encouraging life long health in kids with autism. As a long time youth sports coach,...

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