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Autism and Exercise – Unlocking Special Children’s Potential!

Exercise for Autistic Children…Giving these special children the start they need…and deserve.

I was genuinely very touched by the beautiful response to last week’s article “Jamahl’s Story” about my own son’s journey from Autism diagnosis at age 3 to World Champion at age 12. For this article, as a follow up I wanted to delve a little further in to Autism, what it is, and the incredible role that exercise can play in shaping a happier, healthier and more fulfilling future for these beautiful children.

To me, initially Autism was what I’d seen portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film “Rain Man”. I’d also heard stories of many Autistic children displaying severe social awkwardness which disguised a hidden genius such as a photographic memory, mathematics ability or even the ability to create beautiful and detailed artwork and paintings.

In reality however, not all Autistic children are hidden genius’s, in fact most are not. Each Autistic child just as with mainstream children is unique, beautiful, and heartwarmingly special for their own reasons. Autism is an “Umbrella” term for a condition which includes a huge array of symptoms, skills and levels of disability.

So What Exactly is Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

ASD is the name of a range of conditions that affect a person’s social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.

The varying degrees of ASD are huge, as to are the varying levels of symptoms, behavioural triggers and environmental sensitivities. As with mainstream, no 2 children are alike, however, signs and symptoms including lack of eye contact, verbal communication difficulty and body language are visible usually before the child’s 3rd birthday, though many children are diagnosed much later down the line.

As a parent, I can tell you…it’s heart wrenching. Your beautiful child, your baby is suddenly given a diagnosis which to you brings immense fear. Fear of uncertainty, fear of “how will they survive when I’m gone”, fear of them not fitting in, but worst of all is the fear of them not being able to fully communicate their feelings, their own fears, their difficulties, their pain or their joy. Each day you look for clues as to what may cause a meltdown or irrational behaviour. The feelings of guilt and anxiety as a parent is sometimes off the scale.

When parents ask me how did you cope, I try to simplify it in to 3 areas for their children:

1) Have the child eat wholesome, organic food, reduce the amount of sugar in the diet
2) Reduce the time a child can spend at computer/tablet/phone and/or games console. The pixelations act to overstimulate. ASD children are much more sensitive to the effects of such over stimulation.
3) Get the child to exercise!

Whilst I recognise that implementing these steps is very difficult if the child already eats a high sugar diet and spends 2 or more hours per day on electronic devices, however, it is vitally important that steps are taken to reduce this. The child’s long term health and mental/emotional well being has a much better chance the sooner that these steps are taken.

So Why Exercise? What exactly can it do to help ASD chidren? Furthermore, what types of exercise are best?

Many children with Autism have poor motor skills, often accompanied by poor posture, awkwardness, joint laxity or conversely joint stiffness. Whilst many parents are quite rightly concerned with the child’s ability to talk, make eye contact and how to behave in life situations, often physical activity is overlooked.

Literally dozens of studies have shown that aside from boosting motor skills, movement based therapies and physical exercise can improve social communication, attention, behavioural issues and performance in academic tasks.

When you consider all that can be learnt from play such as turn taking, role playing, verbal and non verbal communication, it really is no wonder that for so many children with ASD, exercise sometimes really is a life changing therapy.

So What Types of Exercise are Best?

Whilst there are many benefits to be gained from participating in aerobic exercises such as running and cycling, as a trainer I would advise parents to take a more “Global” approach to training children with ASD. Whilst exercises that are repetitious in nature can certainly improve physical fitness, this can be to the detriment of physical attributes such as balance, coordination and core stabilisation.

As humans we have 3 planes of motion, sagittal movements (front to back eg squat), frontal movements (side to side eg side lunges) and transverse movements (rotationary eg twisting). In a well balanced workout, everyone should be looking to move in all 3 planes, however we have become a sagittal obsessed society, largely as we tend to move the vanity muscles ie, the ones that we can see.

Activities should also include our “Primal Pattern” movements which are:

1) Gait – walking/running
2) Squat
3) Lunge
4) Push
5) Pull
6) Bend
7) Twist

Activities such as creative dance, animal play, Gymnastics and Martial Arts cover all of the above whilst being heaps of fun and getting children fitter in the process.

It is a huge privilege of mine to be able to work with such amazing children. On assessment, I observe what patterns they struggle with, what frustrates them, what they enjoy and then set about designing physical tasks which integrate the Primal Pattern movements, making them more challenging in time once they have attained higher level of balance and coordination. Then when the child is able to take on more load, exercises are made more challenging, always ending with a high – 5 and a smile.

These amazing children certainly don’t have to be defined by their label as the above photo of my son Jamahl states so clearly. Jamahl started off playfully with myself before I taught him Martial Arts and he became a 2 – time World Champion at age 12, despite having ASD, ADHD & Dyspraxia.

Children with Autism are often written off as athletes at a very young age due to poor motor programming, which is a huge shame. By going back to absolute basics and teaching the most simple moves step by step, over time these children can achieve whatever they focus on – just like regular mainstream children.

For the trainer however, it does require a much greater skill set and knowledge of human movement than that of regular Personal Trainer’s and Sports Coaches. My advice would be to seek out a CHEK Practitioner for expert help and advice.

More importantly, exercise genuinely helps each of these beautiful children to achieve his or her own unique potential. As a parent, if our children achieve their potential in this world it’s incredibly special.

If you know of anyone who has a child with ASD who would benefit from our help, please feel free to forward this blog. Exercise really could be the very best thing that child ever does.

For me, I’m genuinely humbled to be part of their unique amazing journey!

If I can be of any further help…Just ask!

Simply awesome!!! : )

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