The phrase ‘movement is medicine’ is commonly used within the fitness industry, but we can confidently say that physical activity provides children with autism with a wide range of benefits.
I have been very fortunate to work with many children who attend special needs schools and children in main stream schools who are on the autistic spectrum.
These pupils are an absolute joy to coach and, more importantly, they always teach me some valuable life lessons.
The best part is getting them to engage in fun physical activity. It is brilliant to witness the improvement in their physical and mental state.
Research has found physical activity programmes for youth with autism produced moderate to large benefits in a variety of important areas.
These include improving motor skills, skill-related fitness, social functioning and muscular strength and endurance.
Benefits of physical activity for children with autism
• Social skills: Children on the autistic spectrum have a harder time engaging with their peers in a social setting. This could be due to anxiety, inability to read social cues, low self-esteem, decreased verbal communication, etc. Research has shown youths who participated in physical activity programmes designed for individuals with autism display significant gains in their social and communication skills. When children engage in sports programs they build social relationships with team-mates, work with others to accomplish goals, and build confidence.
• Fitness: Engaging in physical activity improves overall strength and endurance. This is particularly important as people with autism tend to have less muscular strength and endurance that is typical for their age. This will also help them in the classroom as they have the physical ability to engage in classroom activities and even see improvements in their writing ability as they are able to hold their sitting and core stability for longer.
• Motor skills: Motor skill development can be delayed with children with autism as they find it more challenging to engage in activities which improve all areas of motor skill development.
Through physical activity children are given the opportunity to enjoy and develop their motor skills such as running, throwing, catching, balancing and so on.
There are many other benefits but let’s look at ways of encouraging children with autism to enjoy physical activity.
Take small steps
It is recommend that children get a least an hour of physical activity daily. But if your child is just beginning to participate in physical activity, then start off with shorter periods. Going for a short walk, taking more flights of stairs or playing outside with your child for 15 minutes are all great starting points.
Make it fun
Let your child participate in physical activities which they enjoy.
They may really enjoy jumping, so invest in a trampoline or even better introduce them gradually into a gymnastics class. The more a child samples, the more likely they will find something they love.
Motor skill development
Be mindful not to just repeat the same physical activity. Exposing a child to different types of physical activities and sport will help in developing their motor skills. Think of a variety of activities that include running, jumping, throwing, kicking, striking, crawling, rolling etc.
Be a role model and enlist friends
As a parent, you are the most important role model for your child. I encourage you to model an active lifestyle for your child. Show them the enjoyment and value you gain from being active.
Next, consider the many people who interact with your child on a daily or weekly basis and how you can enlist them to encourage your child’s physical activity.
Teachers can be a great influence. Share your aspirations and strategies for your child. If your child has a one-to-one carer, discus physical activity goals with them.
When implementing these strategies here are three simple tips to consider:
• Speak to someone who understands. Seek out people who work with children with autism, they don’t have to be a professional. Even better is if they can communicate with another child who has autism who they can relate to.
• Use visual aids. Many people with autism are visual learners. Visual supports such as task cards, physical demonstrations and videos often prove very helpful.
• Routine. We all love routine, and this is especially true for many people on the autistic spectrum. Create a visual schedule to help reinforce the routine, and keep to the same times so children can get familiar with their exercise routine.
In light of all of this we at CORE NI have decided to run a free physical activity session for children with autism.
We want to share ideas with parents on how to get and keep your child physically active. Check out our Facebook page for more details in the coming weeks.