We know that physical activity is good for us, and most of us need to move more. It’s recommended that children get 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day. But for children on the spectrum, traditional sports and exercise can be overstimulating, too complicated, or simply unappealing. The challenge is that children on the spectrum need physical activity just as much, and perhaps more, than neurotypical children.
A robust 20-minute bout of exercise can help a child on the spectrum decrease hyperactivity, decrease aggression, and improve their mood. Activity is also important for children with autism because they are more at risk of being overweight than those not on the spectrum, and teens with autism are twice as likely to be overweight than other teens. Excess weight can lead to health problems, decreased mobility, and decreased motivation to be active. Physical activity can also help children with autism build motor and social skills.
Traditional sports usually call for a high degree of sensory input, chaotic social interactions, loud noises, and complicated motor skills. These may not be right for a child on the spectrum, but there are ways to help your child engage in rewarding physical activity. If you’re looking to help your child be more active, here are four strategies to help:
1. Start With Positive Talk
Help set your child up for success by talking positively about the activity before you try it. Talk about where you’ll do the activity, what you or your child might enjoy about it, and any previous positive experiences you’ve had with the activity. You can discuss what you’ll do before and after the activity, what you’ll wear, and what to expect so your child feels more grounded. Positive talk can help frame the activity in a good light and help your child feel open to the activity before the initial trial.
2. Develop Familiarity
Build on the positive talk by helping familiarize your child with the activity before trying it. If the activity involves new people, are there people he or she can meet beforehand? Is there equipment you can show them? Even driving by the field or facility where the activity will take place can be helpful. If possible, try a practice run. Try to help your child focus on what he or she can do and the positive aspects of the activity.
3. Start with basic movement skills first
If your child is still working on coordination and motor skills, he or she may not enjoy starting out doing full-fledged team sports, even though parents may want to see their children participate. Think about breaking down sports into its components and practicing those with your child or having them practice with a friend. Basketball becomes dribbling, passing, and shooting. Baseball might become catch and running drills. A child likely won’t enjoy soccer if they have trouble kicking a ball, so create and encourage simple games that build basic skills for a variety of sports.
4. Build a balanced program
With children, the goal of a fitness program should be to build coordination and muscle. Too much focus on a certain movement pattern can lead to muscle imbalances, so the goal should be to focus on variety and the five basic movement patterns: pushing, pulling, squatting, rotation, and single-leg movements (like lunges or stepping).
Try some of these simple movements named for animals:
- Bear crawls: Start with hands on knees on the ground. Lift knees slightly so that legs are bent but hips aren’t high in the air. Crawl by moving right leg and left arm forward, then left leg and right arm. Builds core strength and coordination.
- Crab walks: Start by sitting on the ground with feet in front and hands flat behind you. Lift hips and walk backwards using left hand and right leg then right hand and right leg (or vice versa). Builds hip and core strength and coordination.
- Frog hops: Start by standing then squat down until you can touch the ground with your hands (using a deep knee bend). When in position, jump up like a frog! Builds power, flexibility, and jumping ability.
- Gorilla steps: Squat down so that hands are on the ground in front of you (deep knee bend). Bring feet together. Reach out with both hands, then hop the feet forward. Children can also pound their chest like a gorilla! Builds coordination, endurance, and core strength.
You can also try simple hopping or skipping drills, or build coordination and cardiovascular endurance by having children jump on a trampoline! Exergaming, or video games that involve physical movement, is a great way to build fitness and coordination in children who prefer screen time.
Remember, any movement is better than nothing. Encourage your child to try different types of physical movement, and remember to break down complex movements into individual components. Be sure to model positive association with physical exercise in your own life, and take things one step at a time. Stay healthy, friends!
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.