April 16, 2013

ASD and Fitness

The following is written by Stacie Merritt, a Positive Behavior Support Trainer for the West Virginia Autism Training Center. Stacie discusses the importance of fitness to life quality, and provides several strategies designed to introduce exercise.

For many, the idea of starting a fitness program can be overwhelming. It is easy to get too busy or overwhelmed but health issues can be caused by a sedentary lifestyle. For optimal physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being – it’s a good idea to move!

Evidence shows that exercise has tremendous benefits for all. Fitness for people living on the autism spectrum is no exception. But improved fitness for individuals with autism spectrum disorders sometimes requires significant planning, and a greater exchange of information between professionals, educators, and parents. There are creative ways to get moving. The key is to ask individuals what they like to do, then then figure out how you can connect their exercise regimen with their interests.

If you are ready to introduce or enhance fitness for the individual with whom you work, teach, or live, here are several ways to make exercise more fun and effective suggested by autism and fitness expert Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS:

1. Short periods of activity. Pick 3 or 4 activities to do anywhere from 10 seconds to 5 minutes (with breaks) throughout the day. Having shorter durations of fitness can be less anxiety provoking and more tolerable for those with aversions to movement or new activities. A few favorites are medicine ball throws, bear walks, hops, overhead carries, rope swings, and jumping variations.

2. Begin introducing vegetables. They may not even want it on the table near the plate the first time, but vegetables are important. Keep reintroducing them. Don’t make a fuss. Don’t even acknowledge that the broccoli spear is there. Let them discover it.

3. Introduce medicine ball throws, push throw, overhead, and scoop.

4. Ditch treadmills and other running machines for rope swings, short sprints, and frog hops. All the cardiovascular benefit (more, in fact)without the boring-ness.

5. When in doubt, pick something up and carry it overhead. Most athletes had low muscle tone with poor posture when they began exercising. Overhead carries solve both these issues.

6. Use fitness as an opportunity for socialization. Want to see interaction come to life? Have two students toss a ball back and forth or perform tandem (together) jumps forwards, backwards, and side-to-side.

7. Provide Choices. I like to have my athlete pick which activity or piece of equipment they want to use first. It promoted independence and autonomy.

8. More Protein. It builds healthy lean muscle and increases satiety.

9. Build a fitness network. Get together with other families and plan group hikes, bikes, and group exercise activities.

10. Play Outside. Something about being outside makes exercise more fun. It also promotes generalization or crossover of skills from one environment to another.

11. Climb stuff. Climbing up a rope ladder or slide requires trunk stability, upper body strength, coordination, and grip. It is one of the least-performed yet most effective fitness activities.