For children living with autism, fitness is both essential and challenging. About two-thirds of teens with autism spectrum disorder are either overweight or obese, according to research reported in Finding Balance: Obesity and Children with Special Needs, published in 2011 by AbilityPath.org, an online special needs community. The report's authors analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and also interviewed medical professionals and parents of children and teens with special needs. Another research study published in 2010 found that "adolescents with autism and Down syndrome were two to three times more likely to be obese than adolescents in the general population."
Why? Children on the autism spectrum may have strong aversions to the texture, flavor, and color of certain foods, which limits their diet. One study found that kids on the spectrum refused foods more than twice as frequently as neurotypical kids, and that children with autism consumed more sugar-sweetened drinks and snacks than children without autism. Medications used to treat symptoms of autism may also lead to weight gain.
In addition, kids with autism may find fitness and physical activity difficult. Oversensitivity to sights, sounds, and tactile stimuli can affect participation, as can limits or delays in motor coordination and planning. Team sports can be especially challenging for kids with autism, who have trouble with communication and social interaction.
Benefits of Fitness
Even in the face of these challenges, it's important to find ways to help kids with autism try and even enjoy fitness. Exercise can prevent or reverse weight gain, and has therapeutic benefits too. Depending on the program and type of physical activity, participation can help with sensory integration, coordination and muscle tone, and social skills.
Different forms of exercise benefit kids with autism in specific ways. Aerobic exercise may help decrease harmful self-stimulating behavior, and delivers the same health boosts as it does for neurotypical kids and adults: weight loss and heart health. Exercise that improves flexibility can help address problems associated with low muscle tone. Strength training can build a child's core muscles, which will in turn help with balance and coordination.
The following sports and fitness activities can work well for kids with autism (but this is by no means a complete list, and each child will have different skills, likes, and dislikes):
- Swimming: Water provides a soothing sensory input, and kids can compete individually while still being part of a team.
- Martial arts: Classes are usually very structured and advancement is both incremental and predictable.
- Track and field or cross-country running: As with swimming, kids compete as individuals and as part of a team, with little communication required among teammates.
- Horseback riding: Sometimes kids with autism enjoy and even excel at communicating with animals, making equine sports both fun and therapeutic.
Find a Sports or Fitness Program for Children with Autism
Check with your child's doctors, teachers, and therapists. If your child is already seeing a physical or occupational therapist, he or she will be able to suggest exercises and activities you can do at home. You can also ask your child's team, as well as other parents of kids with autism, about sports leagues and other programs to try. See the list of resources below, too.
Once you've identified some possibilities, determine if the program is right for your child. You want to make sure the coach is trained to work with kids with autism. Teaching should emphasize social skills along with physical ones, and coaches and staff should be patient and prepared to provide routine and repetition.
If you find a program that sounds appealing, give it a trial run, remembering that it may or may not work for your child (the same goes for neurotypical kids!). Sometimes having a peer mentor or buddy can be a boon to a kid getting started in a new activity.
Leagues, Sports Programs, and Other Resources for Autism and Fitness
See this list of popular kids' sports; click on any to read more about the sport, including suggestions for players with special needs. Or follow the links below to sports programs and leagues designed especially for children with special needs.
- Baseball: Miracle League, Little League Challenger Division
- Basketball: Upward Sports (not just for kids with special needs, but very welcoming)
- Cheerleading and dance: The Sparkle Effect, Upward
- Flag football: Pop Warner Challenger Division, Upward
- Hockey: American Special Hockey
- Horseback riding: American Hippotherapy Association, Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International
- Soccer: AYSO VIP Program, Upward, US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer
For more options and resources, try The National Center for Physical Activity and Disability, which has a searchable listing of hundreds of adaptive sports programs and camps (tennis, fishing, SCUBA and lots more).
Finding Balance: Obesity and Children with Special Needs. AbilityPath.org, November 2011.
Rimmer JH, Yamaki KK, Lowry B, Wang EE, and Vogel L. Obesity and obesity-related secondary conditions in adolescents with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 54(9), 2010.
Bandini LG, Anderson SE, et al. Food selectivity in children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 157(2), 259-264, 2010.