You likely found this article because you’re the parent, caregiver, or teacher of a child with autism. (If you’re interested in becoming a fitness professional who focuses primarily on working with clients with autism, go here instead.) Before reading further, remember that you should always stay calm and keep your tone of voice relaxed, peppering in encouragement to keep your child motivated. You can also demonstrate the exercises, which we’ll go over in detail, to help your child understand the instructions you’re providing. We’ve listed the best exercises for autism — but first, learn the benefits of autism exercises and tips for safe exercises for autism. As a result, you’ll also learn how to be an even better parent to your child with autism.
Benefits of Autism Exercises
At Strong Education and our sister company Special Strong, we suggest working out for 30-minute intervals at least twice a week. Exercise is good for everyone, but it can be especially beneficial for children with autism. Here are the benefits of autism exercises:
- Reduces hyperactivity: A characteristic of autism is repetitive, hyperactive behaviors like rocking, hand-flapping, and fidgeting. Exercise can release some of the pent-up energy in children with autism, reducing hyperactivity in the process.
- Dulls sensory sensitivity: Exercise is a physical activity, which can help children with autism get better acquainted with their senses, dulling sensory sensitivity.
- Decreases aggressive behavior: Those with autism will sometimes have aggressive outbursts due to frustration at not being understood or being unable to interpret their surroundings. Exercise releases tension, so frustration won’t lead to an emotional meltdown in the hours to come.
- Improves self-awareness: Exercise places people firmly in their bodies. It’s very grounding. This bodily presence also promotes self-awareness. The more self-aware your child with autism is, the less likely they’ll be to act out in ways that are socially unacceptable.
- Promotes weight loss: It’s a sad fact that those with autism oftentimes end up living sedentary lifestyles: videogames, board games, and animated shows. Exercise can keep weight gain at bay or help lose weight that’s already been acquired.
Tips for Safe Exercises for Autism
Before you start a workout regimen with your child, it’s always best to consult with your doctor.
Be gentle and understanding of your kiddo: If they seem out of breath or in real pain, stop the exercise right away. The exercises below, if performed correctly, should not bring about injury. However, individuals with special needs often have trouble understanding proper form (initially), and poor form can certainly lead to injury.
What’s more: If your child is overexerting themselves, they may also get muscle cramps or feel dizzy. Ensure that they’re taking frequent breaks between exercises and that they’re drinking enough water to avoid dehydration.
Set realistic goals and expectations with your child. Watch and see how many reps they can do before assigning a certain number. This can give you an idea of their starting point, and keep you both from getting discouraged.
Best Exercises for Autism
1. Bird Dogs
Because bird dogs are an exercise that involves crossing the body, the right side to the left, they help orient your child inside their body. Not only does this help with spatial and bodily awareness, but it also helps brain neurons fire and rewire, helping improve the health of your child’s brain as well as their body.
To perform this exercise, simply get on all fours on the floor, like a dog (as opposed to “like a bear,” detailed in the exercise below). Palms and knees will be flat on the floor. From this starting position, have your child raise one arm and then raise the opposite leg.
It’s enough of a workout to just balance in this position, so if you find that your child is struggling to stay upright, maybe stop here until they’re comfortable moving forward. When they’re ready, have them crunch their raise elbow to their raised knee, meeting the two joints a few inches above the ground, right beneath their naval.
2. Bear crawls
Similar to bird dogs, bear crawls can improve bodily orientation and awareness. With this exercise, spatial coordination and fine motor skills will also see improvement.
The starting point of this exercise is essentially “downward-facing dog,” a standard yoga pose: In this position, both hands and feet are on the floor, with knees slightly bent and the torso bent at the waist. From here, you just start walking like a bear. It’s exactly what it sounds like — walking on your hands and feet, without touching your knees to the ground.
Again, you’ll want to first see how far your child can walk in this awkward position. Once you’ve assessed their ability, you can give them a short distance to “bear crawl.”
3. Medicine ball slams
Like the above exercises, core-strength exercises help you to stay grounded and present in your body. However, core exercises are also great for reducing aggressive and hyperactive behaviors. Our founder, Daniel Stein, was diagnosed with ADD and put into special education classes. He often felt frustrated, anxious, and fidgety. Working out, especially core exercises, helped him so much that he was able to stop taking his medication.
What does all this have to do with the medicine ball slam? Well, believe it or not, raising a weighted medicine ball above your head and then slamming it down to the ground is a great core workout. What’s more: It provides in-the-moment relief from pent-up energy and frustrations.
Start your child with a light-weight medicine ball and test their range of motion before asking them to throw it down. Once they’re comfortable with moving the ball over their head, then you can introduce the slam.
How to Be a Better Parent to Your Child with Autism
When you learn how to help your child with autism become a healthier version of themselves, you’re being a better parent to them. Health isn’t just about learning the best exercises for autism or tips for safe autism exercises. It’s also about nutrition and mental health too. During this process, it’s important to stay patient — which is easy to do if you understand what’s going on inside your child. You can get the inside scoop on autism and fitness by taking our Special Needs Fitness Instructor Certification. It’s not just for personal trainers; it’s also for parents who want to do better for their children with autism.
Strong Education teaches personal trainers and service providers on how to adapt fitness and nutrition for children, adolescents, and adults with autism, Down Syndrome, and other disabilities through our online adaptive special needs certification course.