Autism is a developmental condition that is normally diagnosed in childhood and is present throughout a person’s life. It affects one’s social skills, as people with this condition struggle to communicate normally and social interaction is generally a problem. These individuals like to stick to a specific routine and don’t cope well when this routine is disrupted. Due to the psychological nature of the condition, those with autism may experience low self-esteem, leading to poor posture and low muscle tone. They may also be overweight due to physical inactivity.
Exercise cannot change the actual condition; however, it is an important tool in managing the symptoms associated with autism. An individual who participates in a regular exercise regimen will reap all the benefits associated with any regular exercise routine, including improved cardiovascular fitness, increased muscle strength and endurance, as well as enhanced ability to perform daily activities.
More specific to those with autism are the psychological benefits. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, or happy hormones, which improve mood and mental wellbeing. Specific exercises to improve posture should also be included in the exercise programme. By performing new exercises, individuals are given a sense of achievement, leading to enhanced self-esteem. Exercising in an appropriate social environment can contribute to improved social interaction.
There are some factors that need to be considered by the exercise specialist when working with a person with autism. These individuals may come across as lacking in intellectual capacity because their social cues are not the same as people without autism; however, they are in fact very intelligent individuals and should be treated as such. Like all people, they will have good and bad days; however, these mood changes are often amplified as they are unable to ‘hide their feelings’ and so we must be sensitive to this. The environment should have minimal distractions and be a safe and positive space. The most important thing is that these individuals enjoy their exercise sessions so that they are a rewarding and positive experience. It is the role of the biokineticist or exercise specialist to encourage and promote this positive, healthy and active lifestyle.