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A Fit for Fitness: Exercise for Kids with Special Needs

08/01/2017 08:29AM ● Published by Digital Media Director

By: Sharon Bethke, Special Strengths Fitness LLC

Families impacted with autism, down syndrome and other physical and cognitive disabilities are continuously trying to improve their child’s life through diet, cognitive and other behavioral and motor therapies. While all of these strategies are vital during early childhood, parents are often unsure how to meet those needs later in childhood, adolescence and beyond.

In addition to the health benefits, regular exercise helps children with autism improve balance and voluntary motor movement, decrease the occurrence of interruptive stereotypic behaviors, improve social competence, attain agility and confidence, and relief for comorbidities.

One of the hallmarks of autism is difficulty with motor activities. This can make participating in organized sports challenging or impossible. Specific and structured fitness activities can help those who have difficulty with gait, leaning forward properly and/or activities that cross the midline of the body or lack of muscle tone in the trunk leading to instability.

Another common trait in autism is behavioral disturbances. Studies have shown vigorous aerobic exercise can be utilized to control nonfunctional behaviors associated with autism. Stereotypical behaviors such as body rocking, spinning, head-nodding, hand flapping, object-tapping, and light gazing, which have been shown to interfere with positive social behavior and learning, can be decreased by the use of exercise.

A lack of physical activity holds many health risks that are often exaggerated in the special needs population. Beginning in the toddler years, youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a higher risk of being overweight or obese. Teenagers with autism are more than twice as likely to be obese as adolescents who don't have a developmental disability. This leads to higher rates of health conditions that can be caused or aggravated by obesity, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

What is the answer? For many children, exercise is provided in occupational and physical therapy. But when they have met their milestones or insurance runs out, it unfortunately comes to an end. As teenagers and young adults, their need for movement and sensory integration doesn’t stop, and exercise helps fill the gap.

Unfortunately, most people think of fitness and team sports as interchangeable—and few people with special needs have the social, collaborative and physical skills to do well in typical American team sports. Fitness is about exercising and strengthening the entire body, building not only specific skills but also cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength and flexibility. Mainstream fitness centers are not adequately structured or staffed to assess individuals with special needs.

For individuals on the autism spectrum, fitness and exercise are often overlooked as life skills, however there is an abundance of research and clinical evidence supporting the dramatic benefits of implementing fitness programs for special needs populations. This specialized area of fitness is virtually unexplored and has created a significant demand for programs that are inviting, caring and effective.

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