Challenges Versus Benefits - Kids with special needs face unique challenges with fitness that may overwhelm and discourage them from participating, including lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular endurance and higher rates of obesity. What's more, studies reveal that inactivity may become more prevalent as special needs kids age. In addition, children facing autism may struggle with balance, coordination, motor skills, sensory issues and communication. "My son Norrin tires and gets easily frustrated, but we encourage him to keep trying," explains Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a popular parenting blogger at atypicalfamilia.com whose son has autism and ADHD. "When you have a child with special needs, it's almost too easy for them to fall into a sedentary lifestyle."
However, when taught within the framework of children's needs, participation in exercise can give them confidence, emotional well-being, and skills that will benefit them for a lifetime. "Fitness and active play are crucial, yet often overlooked, life skills for the ASD and special needs population," cites Eric Chessen, M.S., Founder of Autism Fitness at autismfitness.com. "Whether they are working on academics or daily living skills, exercise activities such as light medicine ball throws, jumps and sand bell slams can help improve performance during the day."
"Norrin loves swimming and being in the water, and he's also participated in the Special Olympics and in a challenger softball league," says Lisa. Parents of Special Olympians claim that participation in the event improved their kids' social adjustment and life satisfaction and increased family support and involvement within their communities.
Lack of accessible community resources presents another barrier that parents, health professionals, and educators can advocate for to enhance opportunities for kids. "Physical fitness in special needs classrooms is a virtually untapped resource for setting up great social opportunities," says Chessen.
Lisa says that she's had trouble finding appropriate, affordable programs for Norrin, but that her family uses what's accessible to them - The playground, pool and gym at Norrin's school, the local YMCA, and a local softball league for kids with autism. "Not only does it provide him with the much needed physical activity, but he gets to have fun with other kids like him in a judgment-free environment."
Research indicates that when fitness becomes a family effort, it can make a tremendous difference for special needs kids. According to a 2013 CDC study, special needs kids whose parents were active at least three hours per week were over four times more likely to be physically active as those whose parents were less active. "We love using the Wii Fit to encourage Norrin to move and have fun," says Lisa. "While he works better in a structured environment, we tend to ease up when it comes to physical activity. We want him to see it as something fun first - the structure will follow."
What Works Best? Just a few minutes of active, enjoyable movement each day can achieve results. Activities should focus on cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, flexibility, balance, agility, and flexibility--but also safety, enjoyment and positive reinforcement. Open-ended, non-competitive activities that can be easily modified have proven most successful. For group settings, this may mean decreasing class sizes, changing game rules and breaking down instructions into small steps.
Chessen recommends slowly easing kids into a fitness routine, introducing them to a few basic movements such as pushing, pulling, crawling, jumping and squatting for a few moments each day. He recommends taking frequent breaks, keeping instruction brief and to the point, and progressing and regressing as needed. When each new skill can be performed with strength, stability and control, a child may be ready to progress in the movement by either adding repetitions, adding weight, or taking less time for rest.
4 Simple ways to encourage fitness in your home and community:
- Promote indoor/outdoor movement and play throughout day.
- Find activities that interest your child so that they're easier to stick to.
- Advocate for programs specific to your child's needs in his/her school and community.
- Make fitness a family priority. Be actively engaged in the process, and be active yourself on a consistent basis.
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