Physical Fitness Helps with Autism Challenges

Ryan and I running together at the Mother’s Day Race

Summer. Opportunities for outdoor recreation abound. Snow and ice may have kept us indoors during January and February, but we have no excuse not to be outside now. You don’t have to belong to a gym to engage in physical activity. Nor do you have to engage in long periods of exercise. We have found at BNI that physical activity engages the students, provides outlets for excess energy, decreases self-stimulatory behaviors, reduces anxiety, and promotes self-confidence and well-being. Some suggestions for getting started:

  • Find a physical activity that you and your child might enjoy and you can engage in together.
  • If your child typically prefers to play video games or is resistant to physical activity at all, you may want to start small and initially engage in 5 to 10 minute segments. Be sure to positively reinforce your child for what he or she does accomplish.
  • Make fitness part of your daily routine. I suggest you actually build it into your schedule and your child’s. In this way, your child will be prepared to transition to exercise.
  • There are various activities – structured versus unstructured – to choose from. Some children are not team players, so team sports may not be the best idea, even if they have the physical skill to play. It is important to analyze which physical activity your child has the most success. You want to create an experience that is as positive as possible for all.
  • A few years ago, we had Eric Chessen ( for a seminar on physical fitness for children with disabilities. He is a great resource and I encourage you to visit his web page.
  • Safety should always be a priority. Make sure you check with your family doctor(s) before beginning any fitness routine.
  • First and foremost, think fun! If it’s a chore, you will quickly lose interest and neither you nor your child will want to continue to participate.

Ryan began swimming as a two-year-old, fearful of water being poured over his head. Thanks to Patty Markley, after 8 weeks of lessons, we accomplished that task without a tantrum. Years of lessons at the BNI pool resulted in his love of swimming. Most weekends you will find him swimming at least 50 laps at the LECOM pool. Who would have ever thought?

As a runner myself, Ryan started participating in that sport during his early elementary years. His first foray into competition was the Kids Marathon at the Peninsula when he was 10. It really wasn’t a marathon but the children were as proud as if they had completed a marathon! We continued over the years – moving inside to a treadmill during our harsh winters. Now he participates in the annual Turkey Trot and Mother’s Day Race to benefit the BNI. I have found both the lap-swimming and running decrease his anxieties and self-stimulatory behaviors. This makes perfect sense in that he is engaging in the repetitive behaviors of running and swimming and is focusing his energy on a positive task. I will tell you that no matter how much he exercises, he is never tired!

I’d be very interested in hearing about your child’s accomplishments as well as what physical activities worked for you and your child. Send your comments my way!

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