Before I became a parent, I judged a lot of things other parents did. Because my background is physical education, specifically, adapted physical education for kids with disabilities,
I was very much a judge and juror to parents who didn’t participate in regular physical activity with their kids. Then I became a parent to twins with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and everything I had ever sworn I would NEVER do went right out the window.
TV for a reward—sold!
Attempt to eat your new non-preferred food for screen time—deal!
So, please know the information I am about to share with you comes from one ASD parent to another; I just happen to have a very strong background in physical activity, health, and kids with autism.
Obesity and ASD
We have all heard the statistics on obesity in the United States and know that our population as a whole is getting heavier and heavier each year. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than one-third (36.5 percent) of the US population is obese. These numbers are even more staggering for children with ASD who are five times more likely to be obese than their typical peers (Spectrum, 2015).
Benefits of physical activity to individuals with ASD
Aside from weight, physical activity has many positive benefits for individuals on the spectrum. Studies have shown that physical activity increases social interaction, attention, and positive behaviors as well as decreases stereotypic behavior, aggression, off task behavior, and stress (Lang, Koegel, Ashbaugh, Regester, Ence & Smith, 2010). These are all positive outcomes for this population that we should be nurturing with daily physical activity.
So how do I get active?
A lot of people cringe at the idea of working out in a gym—but being active doesn’t mean that you have to do that! There are a lot of ways around your home, in community settings, and in the great outdoors to infuse physical activity. These can vary across the lifespan for individuals, so included are some ideas to increase physical activity that range from early childhood to adulthood.
Tips for playing with a young child with autism
- Balloon play: Slows down the speed you would get from otherwise faster moving objects to make it easier to track and practice hand-eye coordination.
- Deflated beach ball: Letting a little air out makes it easier to catch! If standing in one space is an issue, placing the child with his/her back to the wall can help limit elopement.
- Play catch: Move “catch” to the ground by sitting and rolling the ball back and forth, making a game of stop-and-go with the ball.
- Balance: Use a 2×4 piece of wood as a balance board; make lines on the ground with chalk for different pathways; make lily pad circles to practice jumping, walking over, and around.
- Go to playgrounds and parks: These can be scary for both parents and kids with ASD. Most schools have recess areas that are often less crowded than community parks. Go there to practice climbing skills, swinging, and other activities until you’re all comfortable moving to more crowded environments.
Tips for a preteen/young teen with autism
If you have a middle schooler with autism, now may be the time to shift away from team sports. There are a lot of skills that don’t require the pressure of social skills or friendships. Oftentimes groups that are more “on the fringe” are more willing to accept those with quirks or differences. Think about these activities for your son or daughter:
- Rock climbing
- Skate boarding
- Recreational or team swimming
- Golf lessons
- Hiking or walking in the park
- Running groups
Tips for a teen or young adult with autism
If you have a teen or young adult with ASD who hasn’t taken to a team or individual sport, that’s OK! Everyone can have a connection, though the trick can be to find it. Physical activity takes a lot of forms and can be as simple as pushing the shopping cart, walking the dog, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. If safety isn’t a concern, park a little farther away when running errands so you have to walk a little more. Connecting with a local gym and going during “off” hours with a peer buddy or mentor from a local college or organization may also be a great way to increase physical activity and fitness knowledge.
Connect with other people and enjoy
Remember the point is to make physical activity FUN! The goal is to promote lifetime physical fitness and healthy activity. Hopefully you can squeeze some in yourself while you’re at it and encourage your friends and family to join you. I have heard of groups of families getting together for “walking clubs” with their kids or meeting up for swim dates. Sometimes group activities can help eliminate any fears, as there is always strength in numbers.
Lang, R., Koegel, L. K., Ashbaugh, K., Regester, A., Ence, W., & Smith, W. (2010). Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(4), 565-576.
Wright, J. (2015) Obesity takes heavy toll on children with autism. Spectrum News. Retrieved from https://spectrumnews.org/news/obesity-takes-heavy-toll-on-children-with-autism/
Josephine Blagrave, PhD, is a faculty member at California State University, Chico. She directs the Chico State Autism Clinic where she has worked for over 10 years training students to work with individuals with ASD and their families.
This article was featured in Issue 66 – Finding Calm and Balance