As predicted from yesterday’s post, it warmed up today in Southwestern Pennsylvania, more than expected. We experienced highs in the sixties and as I am writing this post in the early evening, a cold front has crossed the area and we are for now in the fifties. Having good skies as I mentioned yesterday helps with boosting mood as well as having clear ground to look at. It is certainly helping my mood; however, I am too realizing the need to be active as an matter of life or death.
Researchers have considered why physical activity improves social skills. When designed appropriately, physical activity programs can provide a fun, safe setting for interacting with other autistics. In other words, they can offer excellent opportunities for practicing social skills. In addition, activities involving animals (e.g. horseback riding) provide autistics with a fun way to interact nonverbally as well as verbally.
It’s very encouraging that our analysis confirmed that youth on the spectrum significantly improved their muscular strength and endurance by participating in programs such as exergaming, aquatic exercise and horseback riding. This is particularly important as we knew from previous studies that people with autism tend to have poorer muscular strength and endurance than is typical for their age. Strength and endurance are important for not only physical health, but also for taking advantage of social opportunities that involve physical activity including recreational sports and non-structured games.
Many individuals with autism have lower fitness skills compared to other people. These skills include balance, body coordination, visual-motor control and other mobility skills. Here again, we were encouraged to find that many types of physical activities improve skill-related fitness for autistics. These activities included computer-based exergaming, jumping on a trampoline (with supervision and safety barriers), motor skill training (e.g. table tennis) and horseback riding.
Many kinds of physical activities – and the social opportunities they afford – require what we call “fundamental motor skills.” These basic skills include running, throwing, catching and so on. Again, our analysis showed that exercise programs significantly improved these skills among youth with autism.
Research and our clinical experience have helped us understand and address many autism-related barriers to enjoyable participation in physical activity.
Several issues make physical activity less appealing for many people with autism. These include poor social and motor skills, a preference for screen-based activities, and a lack of exercise partners and autism-friendly opportunities for physical activity in our communities.
The good news: I have strategies to help. Here are some practical tips for encouraging regular physical activity:
1. Start small
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children get at least an hour of physical activity daily. That’s good to know, but I suggest starting with a more modest goal and building from there.
We’ve found that shorter periods of physical activity, spaced throughout the day, tend to be easier to maintain. Remember: The goal is to make physical activity a regular and enjoyable part of daily life. So, be patient and think long term.
Here are some ways to add physical activity into a daily routine:
- Walking the dog (if you have one).
- Turn TV advertisements into exercise breaks. I recommend a few minutes of a rigorous activity such as jumping jacks.
I recommend gradually expanding the amount of time spent in these and other activities – with the aim of ultimately achieving the recommended daily hour of physical activity.
2. Build motor skills
Keep in mind that autistics will need to build some fundamental motor skills to successfully participate in physical activities and sports. You can make this skill-building enjoyable by playing games that encourage your child to:
- Move in different ways (e.g. run, jump, hop, and skip)
- Play with different types of equipment such as balls, bats and racquets (e.g. throw, catch, kick and strike).
3. Sample different types of physical activity
An analysis identified a wide range of activities that can deliver benefits. From table-tennis to swimming, from riding bikes to riding horses, there’s an abundance of physical activities that you or your individual can try. I suggest sampling from the menu.
Ideally, include one or more activities that encourage:
- Fitness. An activity that involves moderate to vigorous activity – activity that gets a person breathing heavily.
- Social interaction. An activity that involves one or more other people, such as tennis or catch.
- Independence. An activity that can be done alone, such as a home fitness or yoga routine – perhaps with the help of a video.
4. Tips for making physical activities autism friendly
Here are three practical strategies commonly used in activity programs designed for youth who have autism:
- Someone who understands. Ideally, we want people with autism – especially children and teens – to have access to physical activity programs led by facilitators who understand how to communicate and motivate participants in autism-friendly ways. This doesn’t have to be a professional in the field of autism. It can even be a “peer tutor” – another child who understands how to communicate with your child and can provide some one-on-one support.
- Routine. Most of us need routine, and this appears to be especially true for many people on the spectrum. I suggest building a regular and predictable structure into the physical activity program. Create a visual schedule to help reinforce the routine.
- Get visual. Many people with autism are visual learners. Visual supports such as task cards, physical demonstrations and video modelling often prove very helpful.