Exercise and Autism and Rainbows and Unicorns
“What results have you seen?” ask roughly 78% of people who want to know more about my fitness programs for the autism population. Exercise and leading a healthy lifestyle can have astounding benefit for any person, but I caution that it is not magic. There is a tendency to separate different aspects of life; fitness, nutrition, education, social interaction, self-esteem, vocational success, when all of them are intertwined, a human network. It is also important to consider that achievement in one area cannot be wholly responsible for improvement elsewhere.
Many of my Autism Fitness athletes had or have behavioral problems. From social initiation to full-on public meltdowns, they represent the full range of the autism spectrum. I would never suggest that fitness and play are an immediate remedy or intervention for problematic behavior. Over months and years, fitness can be a gateway towards increased self-esteem and a greater motivation to socialize with family and/or peers. How long this process takes is going to be relative to the individuals. I started a group fitness class for teenagers with autism several weeks ago. The participants are predominantly high functioning from an adaptive and cognitive perspective, and all are motivated to exercise.
This environment is ideal for increased and quick socialization and development of interpersonal skills. There are no problematic behaviors and the athletes are already motivated to exercise. Those fundamental requirements are already met. Contrast that to my 15-year old non-verbal all-star who wanders away from an activity on a regular basis and a bit more work is needed for fitness success to carry over into other life abilities.
Can exercise enhance other areas of life for the autism population? Absolutely. And the most important include:
-Physical health and gross motor skills
– Cognitive functioning (specifically short-term memory and prepositions)
– Social skills
It is important to remember that this is not an automatic occurrence that starts when a medicine ball is thrown back and forth for 3 minutes. A regular fitness program is necessary for physical health and optimizing all other areas of ability. Fitness will have short, intermediate, and long-term benefits for the autism and any other population. Rather than expecting momentous changes overnight, progressing to where fitness is a regular and fun event will set the foundation for all good things.