Saturday, 19 May 2012
I stand up and tell a roomful of parents, educators, and professionals that among my friends and colleagues in the fitness industry, I consider myself the “most hardcore.” Sure, I know guys who are training UFC fighters, NFL players, and X-Games athletes, but they never seem to worry about their clients biting them, running out of the room, or dropping their pants while laughing manically on what was an otherwise nice walk down a residential street. Fitness for the autism population is not a casual pursuit, but a vitally necessary part of optimal development.
Nearly ten years ago when Autism Fitness was going through toddler stages, my greatest struggle seemed to be convincing parents, educators, and therapists that physical exercise was important for young people with autism. In the wake of a lifestyle epidemic (general inacitivity, poor diet, and lack of play-based programs) mainstream media has focused on a particular problem; the health of an entire generation is in jeopardy. As with much in the neurotypical world, the implications are similar for the autism population.
Researchers are beginning to publish data suggesting a higher rate of obesity and lifestyle-related diseases in the ASD population. Dwell on that for a few seconds. In addition to the challenges of autism the current environment is conducive to young people with autism developing cardiovascular disease and raising the risk of some types of cancer. I don't write this stuff as a scare tactic. It is, however, a reality and a growing problem.
By definition, interventions and therapies for those with autism are reactive. There are deficits, often significant that require a particular focus and strategy. Because most of my athletes are over the age of 10, we have to begin by focusing on developing foundational skills and eliminating some common deficits including low muscle tone, poor flexibility, and limited strength endurance and stability. Quite fortunately, a good fitness program can provide both reactive and proactive benefits at the same time.
Watch the video below. My teenage athlete Fidele successfully completes a medley of fat rope overhead walks, followed by squats and jumps from a Dynamax medicine ball.
The oh-so-cool and dynamic thing about fitness is that we can develop multiple skills at the same time. At no point in the video is just one process happening. Physically, these are all complex, demanding movements. The overhead walks require shoulder strength and torso stability along with an effective gait pattern for the turn around. Watch the video again and consider how many directions Fidele has to follow; Pick up, press, turn, squat, jump. The short-term memory implications are tremendous.
Finally, if you listen closely we are also working on some speech targets. I've found that fitness activities are ideal for teaching prepositions (in, on, under, left/right, up/down), increasing social opportunities, and increasing exploration of new or novel experiences.
You won't build these abilities with team sports. They are far too rigid with little room for creativity or play. Watch the second video below. Fidele discovered that he liked shaking the kettlebell (which is filled with little steel pellets) around before swinging it. This was a big deal for him, and could be for many other individuals with autism who do not often engage in new and functional behaviors.
Fitness, done right, is an extraordinary gateway for physical health, adaptive/behavioral ability, and cognitive optimization. It is at the forefront of creating the best outcome possible for every member of the autism community.
Eric Chessen, M.S., Founder, Autism Fitness
This was a Guest Post provided by Eric Chessen. Eric Chessen, M.S. Is the Founder of Autism Fitness and the creator of the PAC Profile Assessment Toolbox. In addition to working with his athletes, Eric provides workshops and consulting around the world. It is his mission to bring effective, fun fitness programs to the whole ASD population. More information can be found at www.AutismFitness.com and www.PACProfile.com