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Helping Your Loved One Get Active

Physical activity can be challenging for individuals with autism because many struggle with motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and balance. And let’s face it – like many of us – they often lack motivation to exercise. They may not recognize the value of activity or see its connection to how they feel.

According to the CDC, adults with disabilities who get no physical activity are 50% more likely to have diabetes, stroke, heart disease, or cancer than those who get the recommended amount of physical activity. In addition to overall improved health, some of the benefits of exercise include better mood, improved concentration and creativity, and reduced stress and anxiety. Physical activity also improves sleep, something that individuals on the spectrum often struggle with and that in turn affects their mood and functioning. It is recommended that children ages 5 to 17 get 60 minutes of activity per day and that adults get 150 minutes per week.

Given all of that, how do we help our loved ones on the spectrum increase their physical activity?

First, we must consider their level of receptive language and how they communicate, which activities they already do and enjoy, any sensory issues, their special interests, and the types of items or activities that are rewarding. Then we can build on what they are doing, provide direction they can follow, and motivate them to enjoy activities that are beneficial.

Use technology to your advantage: Fitbits can remind you to get up and move, track steps and calories, and even count swimming laps. The Pokémon GO app incorporates a special interest for many individuals on the spectrum as it inspires them to move about. And of course, many other smartphone apps are available for tracking exercise, which can motivate individuals who are competitive or striving for a certain level to attain a reward. If you think tracking their progress on paper would work better for them, try using an exercise log such as this one.

Provide rewards: Tracking their activity also allows you to set goals and possibly provide rewards when they hit them, thereby motivating the individual. Some healthy ideas for rewards include special interest sticker charts, special outings, or time with a favorite person.

Consider sensory sensitivities: Heat, noise, and lights in a gym, outside, or wherever we choose to exercise can be intolerable for some. Make sure the environment for physical activity is pleasant.

Expand current activities that they enjoy: Do they enjoy riding a bicycle? Lengthen rides by going to greenways or make them more frequent by taking bikes for errands. Do they love animals? Go to a zoo that requires lots of walking, like the NC Zoo in Asheboro. Do they love sports? Have them join Special Olympics or a recreational team in your town or take a tour of the athletic stadium for their favorite team. Do they climb on your furniture? Go to a climbing gym.

Help them feel in control of their physical activity: Your loved one will probably be more willing to participate if you provide choices. Variety also prevents boredom and burnout. For those who do not communicate verbally, create choice boards using objects, photos, icons, or words.

Use structure whenever possible: Map out the zoo so they know how far they are going. Give them a visual schedule. Count repetitions of an exercise on the way to a goal number. When you provide structure, the individual knows what is going to happen, how long it will last, and when it is finished.

Sneak in activity: Many activities can provide healthy exercise without your loved one even realizing it. Here’s a starter list. If you need more ideas, check out our list of activities; print it out and put it on your fridge as a reminder!

  • A day at the pool or beach
  • A family camping trip
  • Dancing to favorite music
  • Wii games
  • Gardening
  • A scavenger hunt
  • Parking far from store entrances to increase walking


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