Children with autism may struggle more with both gross and fine motor skills. Developing an exercise routine for them will help to manage these co-occurring difficulties. A physical therapist, pediatrician, or behavior therapist can help with designing this plan.
An at-home exercise and activity routine works well for a child with autism. Larger outdoor spaces like playgrounds or indoor spaces like gyms can overstimulate them and lead to sensory processing problems.
Recommended at-home exercises include squats, loaded carries, yoga, ball tossing, jumping jacks, pushups, or planks. These are all exercises that involve multiple muscles, tendons, and bones, so your child can improve their core strength, balance, muscle tone, and heart health. Start small, and ask professionals for help.
Overall, an at-home exercise routine can reduce the intensity of many autism symptoms and comorbid conditions.
The Benefits of At-Home Exercise & Activity for Children With Autism
People with autism tend to be diagnosed based on behavioral or developmental challenges, such as trouble understanding social situations, difficulty with both verbal and nonverbal communication, problems with memory or focus, and difficulty with emotional regulation, especially around change. As more clinicians research autism and its symptoms, other impacts on the body are being correlated to this developmental disorder, including trouble with motor skills.
Autism can affect both gross and fine motor skills. Children with autism may struggle with running, balancing, throwing and catching a ball, learning how to write, and even chewing their food. While these skills may not come as naturally to them, it doesn’t mean that children with autism can’t hone these abilities with practice.
A study published in 2012 reported that motor impairments should be considered a core symptom for diagnosing autism. The study examined 144 children from 67 families in which at least one child had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
Physical therapists have standardized methods to measure fine and gross motor control in children with disabilities or disorders, and these measurements were used in this study to understand how autism impacts movement development. The children on the autism spectrum were given a series of tasks to test their motor skills, including:
- Putting pegs into a pegboard.
- Cutting paper with scissors.
- Imitating movements and copying forms.
- Throwing a ball.
- Doing push-ups.
Looking at children with autism and comparing them to their neurotypical siblings showed that physical problems like muscle weakness, balance trouble, and struggles with fine motor skills were common in autistic children. Of children on the autism spectrum, 83% had below average motor skills, while about 6% of their neurotypical siblings had below average motor skills. The study also found that children with more severe motor impairments had more severe autism symptoms.
The 6 Best Types of Exercise to Improve Motor Skills in Children With Autism
You want your child to be healthy and happy, but how do you know which types of exercise are the most beneficial for them? Physical therapists and personal trainers recommend a few specific types of exercise to help your child get stronger, develop better balance, and home in on fine motor coordination.
1. Squats: This form of exercise strengthens multiple areas of the body, including the hips, hamstrings, glutes, and quadriceps — the major muscles in the legs and thighs. These support stability, balance, and walking evenly.
They also help to reduce pain and stiffness in these areas for people who sit much of the day, including students who may be at their desks for hours. Doing squats can keep the legs and back flexible, which reduces muscle injury risks.
2. Loaded carries: This exercise move is simple but highly effective. Hand weights can be carried at the sides. For children with better coordination, hand weights held over the head can strengthen muscles and joints throughout the body.
With loaded carries, the arms, shoulders, back, core, and hip muscles all learn proper alignment. These areas gain strength as the child walks back and forth across the room.
3. Yoga: This form of exercise has been refined at studios across the world for decades. Physical therapists have found that yoga is an excellent form of both stretching and strengthening, improving balance and focus.
A consistent yoga practice works the body and mind together, leading to less stress and better muscle tone. For children with autism, yoga helps to reduce anxiety, strengthen the core muscles, and improve awareness of the body itself.
Yoga can also provide a way for the child to reset if they are feeling stressed. Since yoga can be practiced anywhere, and most poses don’t require any equipment, the child can feel free to use it as a coping mechanism when needed.
4. Ball tossing: Throwing a baseball, softball, or tennis ball with your child will improve their hand-eye coordination, engage their mental focus, and can improve their social skills. Studies involving children with autism tended to combine tossing a ball with other exercises like walking or running, which have greater cardiovascular benefit. When done at home, there are important parts of tossing a ball that can be beneficial on their own.
It’s also an exercise that is easy to incorporate into daily life. Set aside five minutes in the morning to step outside and toss a ball around every day.
5. Jumping jacks: This is a simple form of cardiovascular exercise that can build endurance and strength. You can either use jumping jacks as part of a larger exercise routine, or you can use them to help your child burn off some energy and boost their ability to focus.
Studies on children with autism in school settings have found that they can focus better if they have several shorter exercise breaks throughout the day. You can use jumping jacks at home as a way to keep your child focused and healthy.
6. Push-ups or planks: Both these exercises strengthen muscles throughout your body, especially the arms and core, but also the back, shoulders, legs, thighs, and wrist muscles.
Planks are the start of the push-up pose, but the position is held for a certain amount of time. Push-ups involve bending the elbows, into a 90-degree angle, which can increase the work performed by arm, chest, and shoulder muscles. Both exercises can be modified by placing the knees on the ground.
Even with modifications, both push-ups and planks are great strength-builders. They can be done for seconds to minutes at a time, between activities or alongside an at-home exercise routine.
These exercises can be performed easily at home, inside or out in the yard. You can do them with your child, or you can keep them as part of your child’s daily routine when they get home from school, need a break from homework, or are home during vacations from school.
Studies Support At-Home Exercise for Children With Autism
Finding ways to engage your child in physical activity and exercise are important, but many outdoor spaces and gyms can result in sensory overload. When you identify exercises you can do at home with your child or in a quiet outdoor space, it gives freedom to exercise in a safe, comfortable environment. These exercises can help your child to develop stronger muscles, better balance, and a greater sense of their body and movement without feeling overwhelmed.
Clinicians report that physical activity and exercise for children with autism help to alleviate other symptoms, including:
- Self-stimulating behaviors.
- Balance issues.
In addition, regular exercise can help to improve self-esteem. Not only can children lose weight if needed, they can also feel better about how their body performs. Children with autism can experience substantial gains in their abilities when exercise is incorporated into their regular routine.
When vigorous exercise is combined with evidence-based behavior therapy, it has shown to provide the greatest improvement in autism symptoms. Talk to your child’s behavior therapist about how you can incorporate exercise into their therapy sessions, if appropriate.
Consult Medical Professionals as You Develop Your Child’s At-Home Exercise Routine
Children who experience difficulty with motor skills may manifest the stress and emotional pain of their physical limitations in emotional outbursts, rejection, refusal to do certain things, and other behavioral issues. Understanding how to support your child’s physical health through exercise and activities, especially those that can be part of hanging out at home, will help your child grow into the most independent and happy person they can be.
Learning good habits starts early, regardless of whether your child is on the autism spectrum or not. For children with autism, specific approaches can help them stay consistent with their physical health and feel good about themselves.
Consulting your pediatrician, behavior therapist, or physical therapist can give you a good basis of information to form an at-home exercise and activity program that works best for your child’s needs. As you implement this program at home, consider a few things:
- Start small, perhaps during commercial breaks while watching television, between completing homework assignments, or after getting home from school. Each week, gradually build on the time dedicated to the activity.
- Combine activities to build strength, flexibility, endurance, and motor skills. Add variety to the routine.
- Try different things if your child resists one form of exercise. Don’t push too hard. You can always reintroduce an activity at a later date.
- Participate in the program with them to support and encourage them. Make the process fun.
- Add visual elements like cards with activity images, physical demonstrations, or videos to model the exercise.
- Ask a professional, like a physical therapist, for advice on which exercises will best benefit your child.
- Look for ways to incorporate movement into everyday activities. Encourage your child to help you garden or wash the car.
You can even take the initiative to get your whole family healthy and fit. If you have never had an exercise routine before, you can start one with your other family members or bring in some of your child’s friends from school. You are teaching your child that exercise is part of a healthy, balanced life and giving them an activity they can take with them into adulthood.
There are multiple benefits to exercise. It results in being stronger, having better cardiovascular health, and feeling better about your body. Children with autism experience even more benefits, helping them to improve balance, boost motor skills, lower stress levels, and much more.
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