Over the last 10 years, the population of children with special needs has increased over 165%. According to Autism Speaks, the diagnosis of autism affects 1 in 45 children. As this segment of our population continues to grow, our society needs to have a better understanding of autism and other disabilities. It is important that we offer programs and treatment for both children and adults with disabilities. While many early intervention and cognitive programs have become available, there is still a lapse in the accessibility of fitness programs. In fact, there are very few exercise programs or physical fitness centers available to accommodate these children.
Parents and schools are earnestly focused on academics and social interaction in the classroom. Physical fitness is the last thing anyone worries about, and in most cases kids with special needs are allowed to skip gym class. The classroom is an integral part of development, while physical fitness is often overlooked, meanwhile it is actually one of the most crucial components for these kids’ development. This is because academics and social interaction can be integrated into physical activities, and the combination has the potential to cause greater results than any of these methods alone.
Science shows that physical activity stimulates the nervous system and forces the body to work as a unit rather than in parts. Improving nerve function is beneficial for anyone with a disability. Exercise creates and improves motor pathways and proprioception, stimulates serotonin production, helps regulate the energy systems, builds a mind body connection, strengthens the immune system, helps control weight, and builds muscle. Additionally, the nervous system and the immune system are more closely connected than people realize. For example, stress causes the body to go into a state of fight or flight. This can disrupt hormone levels, especially cortisol, which can lead to a weakened immune system. Therefore, exercise is good for neuromuscular health and for immune function, so it makes sense to increase physical activity.
Special needs children are 58%more likely to be obese and to have below average muscle mass since physical activity is usually pushed aside. Physical, emotional, and behavioral issues can be addressed in a workout session demonstrating that education can be achieved through physical activity in a social setting. In fact, it is quite simple to make fitness both fun and educational.
Fitness programs will vary depending on both the child’s ability to participate and his/her physical and cognitive limitations. For example, if a child does not have physical issues and is high functioning, he/she can participate in a circuit that includes a mini obstacle course with ring jumps, an inertia wave, and balance walks, this can be followed with a simple math or English question before moving on to the next obstacle. For a child with more physical challenges, you can make an easier obstacle course that includes tossing a light medicine ball back and forth while counting out loud how many times he/she throws it, thereby incorporating social, mathematical and physical activities into the workout. For children with even more limited physical constraints, the activity can be adjusted to fit their abilities. For instance, a child in a wheelchair with limited limb movement would need assistance moving his/her limbs in order to improve upon the movements he/she already has.Further, if the child is non-verbal, he/she can engage with number puzzles and use a peg board to count the amount of exercises performed.
While it may be intimidating, personal trainers should not be fearful since training special needs children is just like training anyone else. As with any client, a trainer should evaluate the child’s current state of fitness and address weaknesses. Therefore, if balance is poor and core muscles are weak, exercises should be assigned to make improvements. Just because some kids cannot perform higher intensity exercises does not mean they cannot benefit from simpler tasks, such as standing on one foot while holding a rail.
Physical activity is crucial for children to function in everyday life. Walking, bending, sitting, standing, balancing, and carrying are all activities needed for daily living. Exercising and training builds strength and confidence in children. Additionally, physical activity can be a social outlet through playing on the playground or during group activities and gym classes. The socialization from playground interaction and a gym class far exceeds the benefits compared to classroom socialization. By nature, children like physical activity, and they will request it when they are exposed to it as part of their routine. Special needs children have the same nature, and they are physically capable of activity. However, many of them have a great deal of anxiety and therefore may not participate for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, noise, lighting, touching and fear of groups. Non verbal children are more likely to experience excess stress. Exercise is a great way to burn off excess nervous energy which can improve calm attention in non verbal children.
Activity should be introduced slowly and carefully and take into account both the child’s physical and emotional requirements. A small task such as rolling a ball back and forth will get a child moving while interacting with another person. Furthermore, playing catch and rolling a ball are both equivalent to a conversation, and it is a great way to introduce your child to social play, especially for non-verbal children. All these small interactions add up to create change and to improve the quality of life for any child. By combining purpose-based exercise and education into group and one on one sessions, you will see vast improvements in other areas.
Fitness and nutrition are intertwined to improve both function and health. Nutrition is a key factor in maintaining a healthy nervous and immune system, since 80% of the immune system is housed in the gut. With Autism, it is important to rule out intestinal dysbiosis, check for environmental toxicities, investigate impaired detoxification, and look for heavy metal toxicity. Additionally, check for high levels of inflammation, evaluate mitochondrial dysfunction, assess food sensitivities including gluten, monitor oxidative stress, and look for nutrient deficiencies in zinc, magnesium, manganese, vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fats. These issues can cause inflammation and cause leaky gut syndrome, which may disrupt digestion, nutrient absorption, pH of the blood, the lymphatic system, and the nervous system. When toxins and large food particles enter the blood stream, they can cross the blood brain barrier and cause both behavioral and cognitive issues. Changes in diet and supplements are good tools to help combat these nutritional concerns and enhance the benefits of exercise. Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies can contribute to behavior issues and diminish the body’s ability to regulate energy.
Author: Charles DeFrancesco CPT
Collaborator: Denise Groothuis MS RD CFMP Pn1 CPT