Obesity and sedentarism are issues affecting millions of Americans, but as found in a survey published in Childhood Obesity, people on the autistic spectrum are more likely than their peers to be obese. The research additionally showed that “The prevalence of obesity in the (autism spectrum) group was high and remained so, while the prevalence in children without (autism) declined over adolescence.” To battle obesity, two aspects are key: diet and exercise. For children with autism, it is vital to take into account their needs and wishes when selecting the right activities to keep them active, healthy, and happy.
If you want to make exercise anything but a ‘chore,’ motivate your kids by upping the fun factor. Research undertaken at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University has found that fun is the key ingredient to ensure that children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and ADHD, stick to fitness. To enable this, it pays to work out what activities your child is good at - it may be running, tennis or swimming. For some kids, playing with others is motivational. For others, indoor cardiovascular equipment like bikes or ellipticals, which raise the heart rate yet provide crucial support, is the way to go. Indoor and outdoor exercise will help your child achieve goals like weight loss or muscle toning. Moreover, if solitary exercise is more calming, it should be encouraged as much as possible.
Another study published by researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute found that simple statements of praise may have a major impact on how much exercise a young adult with autism completes. In the study, researchers used headphones to deliver statements of praise such as, “You are doing a great job running,” as participants completed laps around cones on the ground. The researchers stated that praise resulted in participants completing more laps than when they did not receive praise. This was also the case when a live person was making the positive statements.
If your child is planning on starting out at the gym or with home workouts and you find that they are nervous or worried about it, work on reducing stress. One way to do so is to rely on EMDR tappers or EMDR buzzers before or even during exercise. While a child is on their stationary bike, for instance, they can still look at their hand-held buzzers, thus allowing their left and right hemispheres to connect better, owing to the benefits of bilateral stimulation devices. If you're exercising at home, music your child loves may help to up the fun factor and make the workout session seem more like fun and less like work.
Children with autism have a higher chance of developing obesity, which is why exercise should be a priority from day one. Exercise not only helps children stay fit and at a healthy weight; it also has measurable benefits for their mental health - including helping to fight depression and anxiety. It is vital to find activities your child truly loves and wants to engage in, so as to ensure continuity. Taking steps to reduce stress both prior to and during activity will also help increase the appeal of a workout and reduce discomfort.
*This blog post was written by Lucy Wyndam.
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