I have never met two children on the spectrum who are alike. Each has his or her own responses to sensory information and each has a unique personality. I take the whole child into account to develop an individualized program.
How Exercise is Building Robert’s Skill, Strength and Self-Esteem.
The most important goal was to give Robert a better sense of himself. Like many children on the spectrum, he did not know how strong or athletic he could be. His self-esteem was low, and he was sure he would not be able to complete any of the evaluation areas in proper form with correct posture or ability.
Robert showed an interest in basketball during his first session. As his running skills developed, they were integrated into basketball. His running form went from heavy footed, bent at the waist with arms flying about to running with improved coordination, proprioception and motor skills.
Progressing to strength, power and coordination
He was soon able to move to running on the treadmill and then to the track. This is helping to develop his capacities in dynamic exercises. Perhaps most importantly, he is proud of his own achievement.
To help Robert progress and advance, strength training was added four months into his training. The result is the building of muscle coordination that is critical for his future physical development.
He is currently working on developing the ability to do pull ups. Robert was unable to do one push up in his initial assessment and not one sit up. He can now do three sets of 10 of both.
We’ve added jumping jacks, hopping on one foot, ladder drills with jumps and hops to warm up before he runs. Running will soon begin on the skill mill, a treadmill in which the runner is the electricity. This challenging running task takes strength, power and coordination.
Self-esteem and his belief in himself are Robert’s biggest triumphs to date.
How Fitness Is Helping Julian Overcome Physical and Emotional Challenges of Autism.
When he began my Moving Beyond the Spectrum fitness program at age six, Julian faced many challenges. His parents wanted him to learn to engage in reciprocal ball play and follow directions in sports. They hoped he could become able to balance on a scooter and a bike without falling. And, perhaps most of all, they wanted him to be able to interact and play with other children.
Besides his initial lack of physical coordination and body awareness (proprioception) Julian suffers from Hyperacusis, a hearing disorder that plagues some children on the autism spectrum. It makes it extremely hard to deal with everyday sounds. While other people may not even notice, certain sounds seem unbearably loud to Julian.
Unfamiliar Noise Added to the Challenges
My assessment of Julian included a posture, core and movement screening, using the balance beam, ball skills, hopping, jumping, running, crawling and coordinated movements. Completing a full assessment for Julian proved demanding and tiring for him. The new noises he was unfamiliar with and new surroundings created distraction after distraction. Moving at his pace to keep his attention focused was a contest of wits.
A year later, at seven years-old, Julian runs across the gym when he arrives, eager to exercise. He rides a tricycle with full command of his space; able to turn corners and follow straight lines. Julian can balance completely both on the stairs and on our imaginary balance beam. And he can catch a ball up to 15 times in a row.
Progress Dealing With Noise and Emotions
One of Julian’s biggest accomplishments in the past year is dealing better with his hyper-sensitive hearing. He understands that other people don’t hear many of the noises he hears. He could be distracted just by the sound of other kids having fun, or the air conditioning kicking in, or people chatting. With acceptance that has changed his life, Julian knows that the noises don’t have to prevent him from continuing a task.
He can now do running drills to cones of different colors, throw a ball to a target and not just to a recipient. While he couldn’t perform the coordinated movement of one jumping jack, he can now do up to four.
One of his major behaviors before and during his exercise program was to exclaim happiness by screeching or screaming. Julian has made extraordinary progress in the use of words to express his emotions. His parents call his progress remarkable.
At the end of each session, Julian is rewarded with final exercise of choice. Unimaginable a year ago, his choice is always running with as many as three or four other children.
How Fitness is Helping Lolly Increase Coordination and Focus
A Detailed Assessment Helps Develop Goals
When Lolly, who is 11 years-old, started my autism physical fitness training program, she said she was interested in physical exercise. But, like many children on the autism spectrum, her inability to focus or adapt to a new task or position presented challenges.
In order to develop an individualized fitness program, with short and long-term goals, I begin with a thorough assessment that includes testing motor skills, strength, agility, speed, balance, endurance, flexibility and response to sensory information through exercise. Assessments are repeated every six weeks to track progress.
We began with a plan to improve Lolly’s balance. All physical activity requires one to have balance. From sitting in a chair to walking to the subway or getting a glass of water, balance is a required functional movement. In some autistic children, lack of balance becomes a strong disability. Fortunately, physical fitness can vastly improve this issue.
Because Lolly’s inability to balance was severe, our first goal was improving her posture, including her walking and running gait. Her ability to watch where she was going while walking was a serious challenge.
Lolly also has skeletal issues with her feet that are a deterrent to her ability becoming an athlete. However, with continued emphasis on walking in straight lines without tripping and losing direction she began to increase her overall ability.
Homework is crucial to success
I give all my athletes homework to do. For Lolly, that consisted of practicing walking heel, toe, heel, toe down the hallways of her apartment until she could achieve this without touching the adjacent walls. She was soon using her new focus skills to watch her steps, looking forward and then down again at her feet.
The next goal we set was standing on one foot. We began with one to two repetitions of Lolly balancing on one foot for 30 seconds and then switching feet. Achieving these simple goals builds self-esteem and proprioception (often referred to as the sixth sense) of her own body parts working together.
The next exercise we do is standing on a Bosu ball, which forces the brain to work to balance. Her initial response to standing on the Bosu Ball was pure fear of falling. Now, she loves to show off how she is able to stand on one foot at a time with good balance. Keeping her feet straight while walking is an ongoing, but greatly improved achievement.
Increased coordination and focus
Lolly has improved consistently since in the three and a half months since she started my autism fitness program. She has increased her coordination and ability to stay focused and on task for each activity. She now rides a stationary bike for a solid fifteen minutes, and she even requests exercises she’s learned since we started. She giggles and laughs and has made several associations at the gym.
When an autistic child begins to gain self confidence and physical skills, family milestones follow. Her ability to go the gym and go on the treadmill by herself and then join her mother for a Sunday morning of mother/daughter time together was a huge change for the family.
Our next goal for Lolly is to continue enhancing her functional movement skills. We also want her to be more cognizant of her posture during active daily living movements.
How Fitness Is Helping Aiden Build Self-Regulation, Endurance, Coordination And Motor Skills
Ten year-old Aiden’s demeanor is exceptionally happy and sweet and he is creative and curious. He is interested in music and movies, and he loves to sing. Like many children on the autism spectrum, when he began the program in April 2018, his endurance was short and his posture was poor. His muscle coordination was deficient in both fine and gross motor skills.
Based on a formal assessment and observation of Aiden in action, I observed that his ability to follow directions required visual, verbal and tactile cues. I developed a fitness program specifically for him, taking the full child into account.
My initial goals were to get him comfortable moving his body in a physical manner, increasing coordination, strength, balance, mobility and ball skills. Aiden needs to increase his endurance during physical activity. At the beginning of his fitness training, Aiden tired easily when he was not fully engaged in an activity. Now, when the action, movement or exertion is one he chooses, his enthusiasm is accompanied by his singing.
Building Strength, Coordination and Motor Skills
Aiden is now able to run in a straight line as well around a track. His posture has vastly improved. He has grasped the hand and arm form needed to run correctly.
He is still working on foot and hand coordination. He cognitively understands how this should work but is slowly implementing what he knows he can do. In short burst of activity his entire form is on task. He loses his form after about 3 minutes of running, but we’re working toward longer runs.
Aiden is using light weight training to build his strength and enhance the development of fine motor skills. This is also part of building his self-regulation, bilateral coordination, grasp and gross motor skills.