Autism is lifelong, and while many programs for this population focus on younger children, healthy movement is not something to be relegated to the single digit years. As a big portion of the ASD community grows out of childhood, the challenge of creating healthy living habits for teenagers with autism arises.
Teens and young adults with autism have always been the priority focus in my programming. They are an at-risk group for the movement and medical issues associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
Teenagers with Autism NEED Fitness Programs
And not just any fitness program.
Many of the teenage athletes I’ve coached missed the widespread introduction of early intervention (PT/OT, education, and behavior therapy). They have difficulty communicating and limited social interaction with peers. Fitness programs for teens with ASD can not only provide a social opportunity, but can focus on improving areas of physical deficit. In order to do this, we have to understand and appreciate good fitness programming and current individual skills.
We also have to understand not only physical needs, but the behavioral and cognitive considerations for these individuals as well. That was the motivation behind creating the PAC Profile, the method we use for successful fitness and adapted PE programming.
Teenagers with autism often have limited strength, stability, speed, power, and coordination. They may have been diagnosed with “low tone,” which is a catch-all phrase that refers to deficits in general strength. This not only affects daily life skills and physical health, but may have an impact on self-esteem and the way individuals “carry” themselves in public.
So we ask; Is this a trend we want to continue or do we want to provide fitness programming that will truly be life-changing? If fitness is truly going to be a life skill, we need to implement those exercises that will have the highest amount of carryover or generalization to activities of daily living.
Think about what we do on a daily basis. Carrying groceries or laundry, reaching for items in a cabinet, walking up and down stairs, sitting and standing. These are all movement patterns that can be enhanced with the right choice of exercises. Additionally, we can begin to “clean up” some of the movement and motor deficits that may already exist, and provide strength and motor skills that may offset compensatory movement patterns; the kind that lead to gait issues and low back pain in adulthood.
There are exercises that we refer to as go-to in our program and some that we avoid almost entirely. We cover both the “exercises to avoid” or contraindicated exercises in the Autism Fitness Certification; Level I.
Before we share these “Top 6” exercises, it is very important to note that an exercise is only as beneficial as it is coached; meaning there’s a difference between “just doing an exercise” and performing it at a level of progression or regression that works for the athlete.
Understanding progressions and regressions for each exercise is critical. In fact it is the difference between a program “working” for an athlete and something that just appears to be a fitness program. Education on correct performance, including the coaching of each exercise is paramount.
So consider that while these are definitely highly important exercises for teens and young adults with autism, the true benefit of each movement is based in safely and effectively coaching by finding the appropriate progression or regression for each. Regressions are a simplification of an exercise while progressions offer a greater challenge. In Autism Fitness programming we have specific protocols for when an athlete is ready to progress.
Top 6 Exercises for Teenagers with Autism
Squatting has a huge carryover/generalization to activities of daily living (ADLs). Individuals who are diagnosed as “low tone” benefit immensely from learning to control and stabilize during the squat. Developing a healthy squat pattern can also be proactive in preventing low back pain as our athletes age into adulthood. In our Autism Fitness programs we focus on increasing depth and control with specific coaching guidelines.
Progressions: Lower Depth, More Repetitions, Add Sandbell for weight
Regressions: Elevated platform (box or Sandbell stack), Upper Body Support w/ Resistance Band
2) Farmers Walks
Farmers Walks are deceptively simple; pick up two objects of equal weight and carry them from Point A to Point B. But simple does not mean easy. Farmers walks are a full-body exercise that have fantastic generalization to ADLs. Why? Getting good at picking up and carrying heavy things makes us better at picking up and carrying heavy things. Yes, it’s that simple. The additional challenge and strengthening of grip is something just about every individual with ASD can benefit from.
Progressions: Heavier Sandbags/Carrying Implements, Longer Distance
Regressions: Shorter Distance, Physical Prompt to Ensure Full Grip
3) Band Pull-Downs
Band pull-downs help to ensure healthy shoulder and upper back strength. Because so many of our daily movements involve pushing, it is important to balance this out in training with effective upper body pulling exercises. Because many of our athletes will not be able to do a pull-up, we still want to introduce a vertical pulling movement, and the band pull-down is a great “anywhere” option, especially when space and equipment options are limited. The band pull-down can be completed either standing or, if a safe, sturdy overhead anchor for the band is not available, half-kneeling.
Progressions: Greater resistance placed on the band by the instructor/coach
Regressions: Less resistance placed on the band by the instructor/coach
4) Standing Band Rows
Our second, but no-less-important band row variation, the standing band row is stupendous. Pulling this time from a horizontal position with the bands strongly anchored to a wall support, standing band rows can strengthen the upper back and shoulders, while providing a great trunk stability challenge. Grip strength is also enhanced during this exercise.
Progressions: Thicker (higher resistance) bands, Single Arm Band Row
Regressions: Circle Marker on Floor for visual/spacial cue, Lighter Resistance Bands
5) Bear Walks/Crawls
Crawling? Yes, crawling. Bear Walks/Crawls enhance hip mobility, trunk and shoulder stability, and motor planning skills. The full version of the bear walk (with knees up) may be difficult for many of our athletes with ASD, so we begin with the bear crawl, where knees remain on the floor between steps.
Progressions: Longer bear walk
Regressions: Bear crawl
6) Overhead Band Walks
Overhead Band Walks are one of our Autism Fitness “go to” warm-up exercises to increase shoulder mobility, range of motion (ROM), and thoracic (upper section of the spine) mobility. Done properly, this exercise can help with some of the forward, rounded shoulder poster common to the ASD population (because saying “stand up straight” is not exactly an effective intervention). We tend to use a light band and make certain the athlete is keeping it directly overhead while maintaining tension by “pulling” the band apart.
Progressions: Longer distance
Regressions: Shorter Distance, Mirror prompt from instructor
Consider this article not a “how-to” guide, but an introduction to what exercises will have some of the greatest benefits for teens with autism. Coaching and programming, especially for this population, demands much, much more information than can be provided in an article. To join the Movement for Movement and become an Autism Fitness Certified Pro, visit AutismFitness.com/certificationYou ARE the Difference. Become a Certified Pro.