The lost and/or misunderstood issue of Strength and Autism
Several weeks ago at a presentation, I was asked for perhaps the 46th or 47th time whether I did “yoga” with my athletes on the autism spectrum. My reply, which has been carefully honed at this point, was that I need my clients to get “strong, stable, and coordinated” before getting into anything specialized. I will assert that the yoga industry has done, in every sense of the word, a phenomenal job of marketing itself to a mass (and varying) audience to the point where now special needs yoga programs are fairly common.
Here’s the thing; we need to develop a base of strength and stability for healthy movement. Some will argue that yoga, pilates, some other thing with a mystic name, will develop strength and stability and muscle tone and the ability to speak three languages while balancing a one-legged aardvark on your head. The magic secret:
ANYTHING will develop some degree of strength and stability when you have a sedentary or inactive person; i.e., student with autism. So the yoga instructors who email me in protest claiming that their students get stronger and more flexible are absolutely right, entirely because those students have done no other physical activity prior to doing yoga. If a child eats only corn chips, and one day she eats a carrot, this does not signify that a carrot is a perfect food and the ultimate source of nutrition. It is better than the corn chip, yes, but it is only a component of a healthful diet.
Basic strength and stability is fairly straightforward. Pick up a weighted object (I’m all about the Sandbells for my athletes with ASD, and some graduate to dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells) ans squat with it. Then press it over your head. Then press it over your head and walk with it. This, combined with some animal-based movements, some rope swinging, and some running around, is the basis of my Autism Fitness programs. And it works. For everyone.
Are yoga, pilates, trampoline class, dancercise, and sports bad for young people with autism? Not necessarily, but they are side dishes to the main course of strength and stability programs. If students can do their downward dog and upward venison poses, great. If they like doing them, fantastic. I’m happy to argue the intelligence of having a child with poor postural control hold a position that they are not strong enough to hold for 30 seconds, but by that time my emails typically go without reply.
Simply because something is marketed well, is popular, and has colorful accessories does not make it optimal. There are two books I recommend on the subjects of physical culture in the U.S. that highlight this issue. On the yoga front is The Subtle Body by Stefanie Syman. On the entire history of physical culture in America (including why doctors have not a clue concerning fitness) is Randy Roach’s fantastic Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors.
Physical fitness is often the least considered aspect of growth, education, and development for the young autism population. Not around this blog. Give your children, students, and clients the gift of being (actually) strong, (actually) fit, and healthy for a lifetime.