Autism and Obesity

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autism and obesity

Or – Why kids should keep recess.

Or – Why exercise helps kids learn.

Or – Put down your device and get moving.

My kids are active and strong. They would rather climb mountains than sit and play video games all day. They are all of normal body weight. I am, after all, a physical therapist by trade. My kids aren’t about to be lazy. That’s what I tell them, anyway. I recognize the absurdity of that statement – after all, if it were that easy, all preacher’s kids would be saints. But, I digress.

Anyway, I just received my June 2014 copy of Physical Therapy, the journal of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). It’s a research journal, and usually presents 10-12 current articles about all aspects of PT. This issue is no different. There are articles about Parkinson Disease, low back pain, liver transplants recovery, knee replacements, and what’s this?

Physical Activity and Exercise Recommendations for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs).

Interesting, I thought.

I have long held that Jake participates in more individual, life-long sports vs. more team oriented sports in part because of autism, but mostly because it just suits Jake’s temperament better.   This article, which is a perspective rather than a true research thesis, brought some interesting points to mind.

For credit where credit is due, I am referring to the information gathered by S. Srinivasan, L. Pescatello, and A. Bhat. Physical Activity and Exercise Recommendations for Autism Spectrum Disorders, J. Phys Ther. 2014; Vol 94, No. 6: 875-889.

Information I found particularly interesting is that people with ASDs have higher rates of obesity than that of the general public, at about 30% vs. 24%, respectively. Not only this, but people with more severe and involved autism are more like to be obese. I had never even thought about that.

The reasons behind this make a lot of sense. Firstly, our kids (with ASD) are very picky eaters. There is usually a limited palate, and it isn’t usually carrots, but rather calorie-dense foods like pizza, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets. When random samplings of kids both on and off the spectrum were offered new foods, almost 42% of kids with ASD refused the food, while only 19% of NT kids refused.

Also, if a kid with ASD has physical limitations from the disorder, he/she is much less likely to participate in activities that involve getting your heart rate up and your muscles burning. Social communication problems really prohibit “group” sports that involve peer relationships. Sensory integration/processing disorders, which are so prevalent in our kids, make it really hard to sit at a basketball game, never mind playing in one.

For these reasons, it’s very important to make physical activity/exercise a key part of supporting and treating kids with ASDs.

Looking over the available data, it would seem that on average, there was an almost 40% reduction in “overall symptomology of autism” with prolonged exercise. More vigorous exercises like jogging, roller skating, horseback riding and swimming have been used to “reduce the frequency of stereotypical behaviors.” We all know the benefits of a weighted blanket or Temple Grandin’s hug machine, but to take that thinking into the pool, or onto the back of a horse, isn’t as common as it should be. In fact, studies show that exercise performed before class led to higher participation, attention to task, and a reduction in behaviors.

We’ve been preaching for years that sensory breaks are a vital part of a kid’s school day. Not just breaks to sit quietly in the hallway or to reflect in a rocking chair. These breaks help reset the neuromuscular systems and to give needed feedback to the body so it can be ready to receive instruction.

Of course, the recommendations are that you get a kid doing everything that kid can do. If your child can’t ride a bike outside, get a stationary or recumbent bike. Use floaties in the pool. Modify the task to meet the needs of the child. Components of a good exercise program should include aerobics, flexibility, strength training, and neuromuscular training (some sort of balance component).

Excellent options include:

Biking, Weight lifting, Swimming, Running/Jogging, Resistance band exercises, Skiing, Yoga, Tai-Chi, Wii Dance, Treadmill training.

There are a great many programs available world-wide with ideas and ways to get started:

Activity Bursts in the Classroom (ABC)

Motivate, Adapt, and Play (MAP)

Mind, Exercise, Nutrition … Do It! (MEND)

Best Buddies

So get out there and get moving!

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