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Physical Exercise for Asperger's Syndrome
Jim Dilmon was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 9. At that age Jim resisted exercise, and especially dreaded physical education class at the large public school he attended. Jim shares his early experiences in an article on myaspergerschild.com, a help site for parents of kids with autism. “My lack of coordination, clumsiness, poor gait, and lack of motivation has always been a hindrance to my participation and enjoyment of physical activity…Now, I try to remind myself of the benefits of exercise,” he reflects. Like Jim, many people with Asperger’s have a difficult time staying physically fit because of the many obstacles they already face.
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Exercise is an importance part of any healthy lifestyle, and especially for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. People with Asperger’s syndrome, in addition to social and emotional deficits, often have poor motor coordination and problems with strength, speed, and balance. One recommended strategy to help people with Asperger's work toward building healthy bodies and minds is to create a physical exercise plan. Following are three advantages of incorporating an exercise plan, and tips on how to follow through with each.
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Increased Health and Physical Performance
People with Asperger's, especially children, are often prone to sedentary lifestyles which can lead to health problems down the line such as obesity, diabetes, and muscular disorders. Physical exercise can combat these issues before they arise or help treat pre-existing conditions. Many individuals with autism prefer the repetition and self-pacing of activities such as biking, running, and rowing. Exercises like these can yield great rewards in terms of heart and lung functioning, decreased weight, and healthier joints.
I always have my students perform at least a small amount of supervised weight lifting in order to improve functional strength; it is amazing how far a little weight training can go in simplifying everyday tasks for kids with disabilities. A few minutes of stretching each day will enhance flexibility and improve posture, putting less stress on the body. For someone with Asperger’s, it is helpful to incorporate a written or pictorial exercise schedule as part of their daily routine.
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More Self Confidence
It is not unusual for an individual with Asperger’s syndrome to lack self confidence. Constantly feeling critiqued and “out of place” among peers can erode one’s self-esteem. Among the numerous health benefits attributed to exercise are decreased feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as a heightened sense of self-confidence. Staying active not only has a powerful chemical effect on the brain, but also allows people with Asperger’s to feel good about their accomplishments, and experience a stronger mind-body connection.
A support system of friends and family should be a constant source of positive affirmation. Just trying a particular sport or activity for the first time is something to take pride in, especially for people who easily feel overwhelmed by the prospect of something new in their lives. Keep things positive and manageable by starting out slowly and rewarding successive steps that build towards a comfortable performance level.
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Improved Social Skills
Social competence is not a trait that comes naturally to someone with Asperger’s syndrome. Physical exercise paired with small group activities can improve upon this inadequacy by providing a comfortable atmosphere for having fun and sharing in accomplishments. The loud noise and fast pace of team sports or group classes can be intimidating to someone with Asperger’s. Rules that are clearly defined, a visual schedule, and a motivational system to reinforce effort and success can all contribute to a more positive experience. Because of their disability, people with Asperger’s tend to analyze their mistakes; guidance will be easier to accept if high levels of praise are embedded (“You’re doing great! I bet you can throw the ball even farther if you hold it like this. Let’s give it a shot!”)
Gym classes everywhere are beginning to incorporate more modern technology into their programs, like the Wii Fit for Nintendo Wii. The Wii-Fit has a wide variety of activities (yoga, strength training, balance games) that can be enjoyed individually or with peers, and provides a fun way to promote interaction while getting a good workout.
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Physical exercise for Asperger's syndrome is not a treatment, but a lifestyle modification with a host of benefits. While most people today could benefit from staying more active, it is especially important for people with disabilities who already have enough to overcome.
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Sources: Autism Today. http://www.autismtoday.com/articles/buildingselfesteem.html
My Asperger's Child. http://www.myaspergerschild.com/2010/09/aspergers-children-and-physical.html