Fred R. Volkmar, M.D.
Irving B. Harris Professor, Director – Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Child Psychiatry, Yale New Haven Hospital, Editor in Chief, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder
There is no denying that physical fitness does wonders for the body and mind. But what does physical activity do for those on the autism spectrum? A meta-analysis (analysis of existing research) was conducted and published in 2012 by Michelle Sowa and Ruud Meulenbroek from Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behaviour at Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands. They identified 16 studies, which assessed the impact of physical exercise on children and adults with autism (total of 133 participants across studies). The authors analyzed the studies and found a significant impact on motor and social skills across studies.1 The studies included physical activity interventions of walking, running, swimming, horseback riding, bike riding, and strength training. Studies are still being performed, analyzing what physical fitness can do for those on the spectrum, but a fitness center in Orange, CT is seeing real results on how physical activities can benefit those with autism spectrum disorder.
Health and fitness is often more difficult and less intrinsically rewarding for kids on the spectrum for many reasons. Beyond their general attraction to activities with high visual inputs and low language and social demands (i.e. television, games, etc.), these individuals often have oversensitivity to lights, sounds, and tactile stimuli, and experience delays in motor coordination and planning. Team sports can be especially challenging due to trouble with communication and social interaction. Like that of typical gyms, ASD Fitness Center features personal one-on-one training, intimate group classes, and workout machines, such as treadmills. The gym is a sensory-friendly facility with a beige color scheme, soundproof flooring to prevent echoing, and a designated area for functional skills development. ASD Fitness offers sectioned-off workout stations, equipped with visual cues, to focus on building core, upper body, and lower body strength. The gym also has a tailored “fun” station following each workout. An Individualized Fitness Program (IFP) is developed after a sit-down evaluation with the potential member. This evaluation helps tailor the work out plan to suit the member’s needs. By individualizing fitness activities to each client’s ability, he/she can experience success and become motivated to pursue physical health and wellness, creating an enriched life into adulthood. Delivering these services through one-on-one training allows us to focus on each client’s physical, cognitive, and adaptive development and manage behavioral needs by providing the appropriate supports. Over time, our trainers establish a substantial rapport with the clients and capitalize on teachable moments to raise their awareness of appropriate social interactions and relationship maintenance strategies.
As time progresses, we notice our members see an improvement in their physical fitness level, build their confidence, improve social awareness, and decrease anxiety. One of our members, John R., has dropped from a 34” pant size to a 32.” Mary and Mike Kenney, parents of an ASD Fitness Center client, told us, “Since our son has been going to ASD Fitness Center, he has built up his muscle tone and his confidence. We are so glad we found this wonderful place.”
Doctors told one member that he would not be able to walk, and today he can do jumping jacks! We continue to be impressed by our member’s perseverance and determination. The benefits from physical exercise show in our members, from losing weight to feeling more comfortable in social situations. Our members continue to progress with each week and we are glad to be a part of their journey.
Adam and Dedra Leapley are co-founders of ASD Fitness Center. Adam and Dedra were inspired to create a specialized gym for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) based on their own experience of raising a child with ASD.
This article was featured in Issue 52 – Celebrating the Voices of Autism