Sleep and Exercise for Children and Teenagers with Autism


“She had got up very early in the morning and had worked hard in the garden and she was tired and sleepy, so as soon as Martha had brought her supper and she had eaten it, she was glad to go to bed.

The skipping rope was a wonderful thing. She counted and skipped, and skipped and counted, until her cheeks were quite red, and she was more interested than she had ever been since she was born. The sun was shining and a little wind was blowing – not a rough wind, but one which came in delightful little gusts, and brought a fresh scent of newly turned earth with it.

. . .Fresh air, and digging, and skipping-rope had made her feel so comfortably tired that she fell asleep.” – The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett


Young children, and many older children and adults yearn to spend more time outdoors, playing in parks, exploring a garden, the wilderness, or wandering beside a stream. Until they reach adolescence, children embrace the outdoors by walking and running, chasing animals and each other, and discovering the mysteries of the natural world until they are exhausted. Exercise is a by-product of discovery and purpose.

The beauty and mystery of the natural world draws them – the wind, colors of the sun and sky, trees and flowers, and the secret worlds they create in the places they discover.

Sleep came easily when children were worn out from running and playing outdoors. Unfortunately, as a society we took so much of this wonderful time. Now replaced with indoor gym classes, ballet, karate or taekwondo – a daily hour of programmed time that rarely introduces them to the delights of sun and wind, water and wildness.

The hour a day, twice a week, most children devote to exercise in classes or sports doesn’t begin to equal the many hours children, even as recently as the 1960’s, spent playing, walking, and running outdoors. Children fished, created secret forts in the woods, and helped in gardens. They walked or rode their bikes to school.

As a result of changing exercise patterns from natural activity outdoors to scheduled hours, often indoors, children and teenagers are more overweight and out of shape than ever. They have sleep problems–an issue that used to be associated more with overly worried adults and the elderly. For children and teens with autism lack of exercise in fresh air is the root of many sleep problems.

The Importance of Exercise

At the dawn of history, human beings walked and ran, swam in rivers and lakes, climbed hills, gathered and hunted, and spent every day outdoors. Later, human beings began to farm and herd animals, using their muscles, walking and lifting, digging and pulling or pushing a plough outdoors. Up until a hundred years ago, eighty percent of the population of the United States still lived on farms. Children and adults spent large parts of their lives outdoors, exercising, not on a track or exercise machine, but in productive work.

Gradually, more and more people spent larger portions of days indoors as jobs in factories and the service sector increased. More children attended school; by 1918, all states had mandatory education laws that required all children to attend school until they graduated from eighth grade or turned 16, whichever came first.

By the 1960’s most families had television, adding another sedentary activity. Sadly, by the mid 1990’s, the average 4th grader spent 40 hours a week watching television. Advances in technology has added even more time in front of screens. Between the full-time sedentary work of attending school and doing homework, and the time many children spend on television, computers, video games, and other electronic devices, a majority of children now spend very little time outdoors or getting necessary exercise, especially during the school year.

But a strange thing has happened: doctors, teachers, and parents seem unworried by this drastic change in time spent getting exercise in the natural world. It seems doctors and teachers are satisfied with a list of organized after school activities.

Busy parents, also usually inside during the daylight hours, feel they have done the best they can if their children participate in at least one or two organized after-school activities. Paying for the classes and chauffeuring can be exhausting. The thought of doing more seems overwhelming.

Children and teenagers with autism may be especially at risk for losing opportunities for physical exercise because they may be awkward in organized sport classes.

In addition, organized activities may not always be the best choice. Free time outdoors, whether playing or doing simple tasks, provides a time for physical and mental relaxation when thoughts can wander creatively and gain insights from the natural environment.

In the Secret Garden, the children discover the magic of helping a garden grow, healing themselves through play in the natural world. Colin and Mary have been “indoor” children. Dickon introduces them to the wild creatures and his love of the moor and “growing things”. In our own lives, time in our ‘secret garden” when we can daydream, resolve problems at our leisure, meditate or pray, or dream up new projects, is essential for living well. Finding the secret garden may be difficult at first, as difficult as it was for Mary to find the key to the garden in the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Once we find it, however, we become lured there again and again by the peace and well-being we feel within ourselves.

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The team behind Your Little Professor is dedicated to providing factual information for parents and caretakers of adolescents on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. We believe in connecting families to the necessary resources in order to help individuals on the spectrum succeed in day-to-day life.


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