When I was growing up, the local YMCA was my after-school babysitter. Every day, I had a different class: swimming, gymnastics, judo, dance, and so many others, over the years. Sometimes, it got to be a bit much, but it kept me active and helped me to develop my physical literacy. And, I didn’t just stay active. I also learned new skills and made new friends. So, I just took it for granted that my kids would spend their childhoods immersed in various classes at the local community centre.
I never stopped to consider that my older son’s autism would force me to change my approach to how he engaged in physical fitness. Like many kids on the spectrum, my son has poor muscle tone and delayed fine-motor coordination, making physical fitness and strength training a key part of his therapy needs. But conventional approaches, such as participating in organized activities like the ones that I grew up with, tend not to work well.
I tried to put my son in swimming lessons at the community pool. The pool staff worked with us to ensure that he had support during the sessions, but he spent most of the time at the edge of the pool, consumed by the details on one toy. He didn’t want to float on the water, didn’t want to blow bubbles or to participate in activities with the other kids. While they splashed and kicked and ran around in the toddler pool, getting a full class of fitness and new skills, my son barely moved. Though, it’s important to note that he did have a great time in his own way; many children with autism would feel too overwhelmed to participate at all.
Luckily, with the help of my son’s amazing team, I’ve learned fun ways to incorporate physical fitness into our everyday lives, without relying on organized activities. To help him build up his core strength, we walk like animals, hopping like frogs, slithering like snakes or walking on all fours like bears. Sometimes, he walks on his hands while I hold his legs. We also have contests to see who can hold a funny (yoga) pose for the longest time and, of course, we try to get outside to the playground for the usual running, climbing and jumping. Meanwhile, his fantastic support aide at daycare does a great job at coaxing him to join in on games of tag and soccer with his peers. And, there’s a great organization here in BC, Canucks Autism Network, which provides organized sports for kids with autism, allowing them to learn the skills for a wide variety of sports in an environment that’s specially designed to meet their needs.
It’s important that my son gets a certain level of fitness. Not just to make up for the physical strength he lacks, and to stay healthy, but it also helps to keep the negative behaviours associated with his autism under control. And that makes for a happy mom, as well as a happy kid.