Yair Ariel • April-4-2016
With childhood obesity rates soaring in many developed countries, including more specifically children with autism in the United States, physical fitness is an urgent health issue for today’s children. Science has shown that even mild-to-moderate exercise confers a variety of physical and mental benefits. Perhaps most importantly, it leads to better long-term health outcomes, dramatically lowering the odds of diabetes, heart disease and many other potentially deadly illnesses. This underlines how important it is to motivate children with autism and special needs to get them physically active.
For parents of autistic children, this need to motivate children with autism to exercise is even more acute, as physical exertion often has therapeutic value along with its myriad health benefits.
Yet too many children with autism are falling woefully short in this regard. In fact, they are getting even less exercise than children who aren’t on the spectrum, placing them at greater risk for obesity. According to a 2014 study in the journal Autism Research and Treatment, children on the autism spectrum tend to be less physically active than those who are “neurotypical.”
This deficit isn’t the result of any innate limitations, however — children with autism scored evenly with other kids in every fitness capability metric except strength. Researchers believe this proves they are just as capable. Yet something is preventing them from getting enough exercise.
So how do parents and educators motivate children with autism and special needs receive all the help they deserve? We start by providing them with the access, tools and guidance necessary to succeed.
To that end, let’s discuss some smart ideas for helping motivate children with autism become more active.
Create an exercise regimen that doesn’t heighten their anxiety
Many children with autism eschew group sports and activities because they are uncomfortable with the social component. Many of these children also have an aversion to crowds and loud noises, as both can create debilitating sensations of sensory overload.
In order to help them overcome these issues, it’s a good idea to design an exercise plan that is sensitive to their needs. If a child is more comfortable with a solitary sport like running, encourage her to explore this interest. Forcing children to engage in physical activity that triggers bad feelings or frightening sensations is a good way to dissuade them from exercising altogether.
Encourage physical interaction with other children on the autism spectrum
Children with autism often manifest very strong attachments to certain behaviors or activities. In some cases, this intense interest and focus works to their benefit. Yet it can also place them at risk of becoming sedentary and withdrawn. For example, an autistic child intensely focused on computers may wish to sit in front of a screen day after day, to the exclusion of other activity.
Introducing kids with autism to others on the spectrum in a group setting can help children cultivate a broader range of interests — and get more exercise while they’re doing so. There are a multitude of camps, programs and group events available to help kids interact with other kids in a natural setting. These outings help them build social bonds while also getting the benefit of exercise.
Engage them with new technology
Today’s “digital natives” are huge fans and followers of technology — and that certainly applies to children with autism. Technology is sometimes unfairly tarred with a “the kids are just sitting around in the basement playing games” brush; yet the fact is there are many exciting new products that encourage children to become more active and engaged with the physical world.
Wearable technology is one option. The prospect of quantifying exercise through data by wearing a Fitbit-style device might be appealing enough to encourage an autistic child to engage in more physical activity. Additionally, new cutting-edge projection technology exists that allows for the creation of an immersive group play space. This is precisely the sort of fun activity that can help children with autism get more exercise — without even realizing they’re doing so.
Ensure exercise time is structured
Almost every child benefits from structure, or the creation of a routine. This is how good habits are instilled. Many children with autism are particularly in need of a structured environment, as the predictable routine that’s created helps minimize feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
By repeating a well-designed, highly-structured exercise program over an extended period of time, children with autism will be in the best position to benefit from the workout – and maintain it once they are no longer supervised.
Don’t be afraid to get creative
There’s no reason to limit available exercise choices to mainstream group sports such as basketball or solitary workout regimens. Anything that gets a child out of the house and walking will provide some benefits.
Horseback riding, bowling, swimming, dancing or even walking around the mall are all viable options. If it helps to avoid designating this as “exercise” at all, feel free to do so. If children have fun and stay engaged, they’ll get in better shape without even realizing it.
The takeaway on how to motivate children with autism
Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels — and science has shown children on the autism spectrum are especially vulnerable. By following the advice listed above, you can help kids with autism become more active. That, ultimately, will make them healthier and happier.
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