Autism Therapy: The Case for Fitness
I’m not sure what most parents, educators, and clinicians think of when the term “Autism Therapy” is considered. Most probably, parents think of therapeutic interventions for problematic or maladaptive behaviors including aggression, self-injury, eloping (running away), and poor tolerance of new activities. Autism Therapy may also include any manner of whacked-out pseudoscience that is prohibitively expensive and, therefore, must work. I am going to use the word holistic here, but as intended. Success in any therapeutic intervention for the ASD population must have a foundation of physical activity and nutrition.
Fitness and good nutrition are essential for optimal living. There is also ample evidence that both contribute to better physical, adaptive, and cognitive functioning including reductions in problematic behavior, better self-regulation, and stabilized moods. We have a tendency to treat problems as they occur; autism therapy is a direct reaction to symptoms and complications that already exist. Appropriate physical fitness programs based on general movement development and active play (versus sports) have both proactive and reactive benefits.
Integrated fitness is a preventative and therapeutic foundation for individuals with autism. Think of any skill (physical, adaptive, or cognitive) in terms of age-appropriateness. Is the skill:
Deficit (below average)
Intermediate (at age-appropriate level)
Optimal (a point of strength for the individual)
Individualized fitness programs can improve deficit areas in physical ability, and have potential for increasing self-esteem, initiative, and cognitive functioning. They are not a direct therapeutic intervention, but a way to optimize other therapies or educational programs.
If Terry is standing up and running out of the classroom 5-6 times every day, it would seem odd to “prescribe” a fitness program for the problem behavior. There needs to be a direct response to the specific issue. However, if we begin to incorporate a daily fitness program and better nutrition with an evidence-based behavioral protocol can result in a better outcome. By “better outcome,” I am referring to faster skill acquisition (of positive, functional behaviors).
Keep in mind that the fitness activities provide an appropriate outlet for physical movement. It is possible that Terry craves physical exertion during the day. Giving him some new fitness activities (medicine ball throws, rope swings, jumps) can help alleviate the less-desirable running from the classroom.
Our educational and autism therapy practices right now often lack a sturdy foundation. Including fitness programs and better nutrition can and should be the first step in optimizing life for those on the spectrum.