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Developing Exercise Programs for Children with Autism

Developing Exercise Programs for Children with Autism

Developing Exercise Programs for Children with Autism
by Theresa Basile
 
The benefits of exercise are numerous. Then why do so many people avoid it? Listing excuses not to work out could be its own Olympic event.
 
"I don't have enough time in the day." "Gym memberships are too expensive." "I'm too tired."
 
The reasons become more extensive - and more serious - for a child with autism. Delays in motor skills (including balance and coordination) can make exercise difficult. Lacking a sense of safety can put a child at risk when playing sports outside. Never mind that developing any kind of new routine, particularly one that involves stress on the body, can be a challenge for someone with strong aversions.
 
Still, the importance of physical fitness, especially for children with autism, cannot be overstated. Research shows that consistent exercise leads to a reduction in problem behavior. Due to a variety of factors from picky eating to side effects from medication, children with autism are more likely to be obese than their neurotypical peers, and exercise can mitigate some negative effects of obesity.
 
Building an exercise program for a child with autism is helping them develop a lifelong leisure skill that's healthy and beneficial for the body. As with other leisure skills, exercise programs can be taught with a combination of assessment, shaping, and a willingness to keep an open mind.
 
Possibly the most well-known success story about autism and exercise is that of the Schneider twins, two competitive runners in their late twenties. Diagnosed at 21 months, Alex and Jamie are nonverbal and have very limited communication skills, but between them, they have participated in 350 races and 25 marathons. When they were children, their mother Robyn gave them opportunities to try several different athletic activities, including horseback riding and swimming. The boys enjoyed both of those sports, but running was the real hit for them and became an activity for the whole family to enjoy together.
 
A child doesn't need to have the running time of Alex Schneider (2:50:51 in the 2017 New York City Marathon) to be physically fit, but his success demonstrates the possibilities that come with creating an exercise program. When developing his running plan, his parents and coaches noticed that he and Jamie had different running styles: one was a sprinter while the other preferred running long distances.
 
We keep those principles in mind when building exercise programs for our students. BAC has introduced several different athletic activities to our students over the years, including soccer, karate, cardio-strength circuits, horseback riding, yoga, swimming, and dance. While assessing the effectiveness of the classes in general, we also take note of the particular activities that strike a chord with individual students. Observing what classes they enjoy the most is a good stepping stone to finding similar activities they might like. We also communicate with the students' families to see what kind of movement they most enjoy doing at home. 
 
After the initial assessment comes shaping and the gradual introduction of different steps of an exercise routine. Getting a sedentary person to run a 5K overnight is not going to happen no matter how strong the motivation, but walking briskly for a third of the distance is well within reach. The same idea applies if we introduce something like weight-training: five reps with a light dumbbell can be a very effective introduction, and gradually turn into ten reps with a medium weight or fifteen with a heavy one. Teachers will model each step of the exercise for the students, whether it's lifting weights, performing a squat correctly, or using the treadmill. (They might even get on the treadmill with the student to show them how to use it.)
 
Self-evaluation is the next step in determining the success of the exercise program. Our student Peter self-evaluates every time he completes a cardio circuit within his workout, talking about how much he liked (or didn't like) the activity, how difficult the activity was, and whether or not he beat his score from the previous time he tried it. This self-evaluation is also effective for nonverbal and minimally verbal students; Isabella, who has a hearing impairment in addition to autism and communicates primarily with an iPad, has a scale with pictures of faces representing different emotions and will point to them to indicate how she feels after completing a workout.
 
We can't say this part enough: having students make choices in designing their exercise programs is the biggest factor for long-term success. Everyone has activities they prefer over others, and our kids are no exception. For example, our student, Isabella has a wide range of activities on an "exercise menu" and will sequence them in preferential order. Her most-preferred activities might change from day to day, but she's always included in the decision-making for her workout routine.
 
Finally, once a routine is established and a student is exercising regularly...we change things up! Not too much, because children with autism can struggle with change, and the last thing we want to do is get them out of the habit of exercising. But progress in fitness will plateau if the same exact routine is kept every single day, and we also don't want the kids to get bored.
 
BAC student Ian, for example, has always liked to run. To prevent turning an activity he enjoyed into something aversive, his teachers added some slight variations to his routine. They take him running at different times in the day, in different locations, and for a shorter (or longer) duration. This adds variety to a routine and keeps him on his toes. 
 
Exercise improves the quality of life and variety adds spice to it. Getting a child with autism to develop a commitment to physical fitness is not easy at the beginning, but the benefits are immeasurable and well worth the hard work. 
 
Now who's ready for 2018?