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When we discuss ASD, we rarely discuss fitness for children on the spectrum. While it is becoming clear that the people on the autism spectrum need and benefit from physical activity, there are still very few fitness and exercise programs for the population on the spectrum. Fitness activities should be more integrated into school, gyms, and clinics.

Physical activity plays a very important role in reducing various forms of negative behavior, and is shown to have a direct impact on reducing depression, stress, anxiety, tension, self-harm, and frustration. Furthermore, organized exercise programs have been shown to significantly improve concentration, communication, work performance, physical, emotional, and cognitive health, in addition to building social skills and self-esteem.

Possible Fitness Difficulties

An exercise program should appropriately meet the needs of the individual who will be participating! When creating a fitness program for children on the spectrum, we have to be aware of their possible difficulties so we can find and adjust activities to meet their needs. Children on autism spectrum love to learn and play in safe and often predictable conditions, if they prefer to follow routines. They may have difficulty with verbal communication and need more time to process what they are told. They also may have problems with gross motor skills, which means they may have difficulty imitating complex motor skills. Due to sensory integration problems, children on the autism spectrum can have difficulty receiving important information because of their preoccupation with other feelings such as noise, smell, light, or touch. This could also cause difficulty working with others in solving a particular task. In addition, difficulties may be encountered in expressing dissatisfaction, understanding rules, and sharing. It takes more time to process and maintain, or adopt, motor skills. Kids with ASD have difficulty with the generalization of learned skills in different situations.

Overcoming Fitness Difficulties

Having those potential issues in mind, here are some tips for adjusting physical activity for children on the spectrum:

  • Use smaller rooms and designate a place where the child can take a break.
  • Visually mark the individual parts of the space intended for each task.
  • Announce upcoming changes in advance so that children will have time to prepare for transitions.
  • Simplify rules and skills first, then build up in complexity.
  • Provide short, precise, and visual instructions. Combine verbal instructions with a visual reference to an image, video or demonstration whenever possible.
  • Appropriate sports requisite and equipment should be used with regard to the child’s individual needs.
  • Develop a vareity of different physical activities to choose from.
  • Include a child on spectrum in joint activities with their peers without any difficulty.
  • Allow kids to take advantage of their favorite activities and have fun!

(Note: as with neurotypical children, if inappropriate behaviors, such as aggression, are observed, an adult needs to change or stop the activity in order to help the child.)

We have to remember that children on the spectrum are still kids and treat them that way. They can play, run, swim, shoot baskets, kick a soccer ball, and play catch, just as their neurotypical peers do. They just need to be taught in a different way. As with most topics taught to individuals on the spectrum, if you break them down, any lesson can be learned. While therapy is very important, don’t forget to make room for fitness. Exercise is extremely important for well-being and allows full psycho-motor development for everyone!

About the Author

Karolina Milak is a student who got the opportunity to work with children on the autism spectrum during her time in college. She is interested in research that can help individuals with autism and their families. Her goal is to spread awareness about autism and help to improve the lives of individuals on the spectrum.