Sleep and Exercise for Children and Teenagers with Autism

Physical education classes are usually a nightmare for a child with Autism. Most have awkward gaits and cannot run fast. Their poor motor coordination means they cannot throw or catch balls, balance themselves, or master movements like hopping or skipping.

Why Physical Education Classes are Difficult for Children with Autism

Besides being unable to perform most activities required in gym class, some children with autism become overwhelmed by the smell of the locker room. The coach’s whistle and yelling in the swimming pool may cause sensory overload. Others cannot stand to take showers and have difficulties with daily living skills.

Children with autism often have trouble following a gym teacher’s spoken directions. They may be unable to imitate the teacher’s motor activity, especially if it is modeled as a mirror image. Multiple steps spoken at once may also be difficult.  For example, “Choose a partner and line up against the wall,” can cause difficulties processing what is expected.

Competitive sports often cause trouble, because Aspies can be extremely rule-oriented. They may have rigid ideas about how a game should be played and be unable to “change course midstream.” They may tantrum if they are not first at bat or if their team loses.

Finally, and most importantly, some children with autism have a high pain tolerance. They may be injured in sports and not report it to their teachers. There have been many stories of children with autism having broken arms or legs who kept playing the game.

For all these reasons, many parents of autistic children often request “Adapted Physical Education.” These are special classes with activities appropriate for their child’s special needs. Some schools allow parents to substitute participation in outside activities such as bowling for attendance in gym classes.

Many Aspies do not like to “roughhouse.” They may have fears of playground equipment. Many prefer sedentary activities and like to play alone. For example, one three-year-old with autism spends all day quietly lining up his toy cars to match the sequence in his mother’s carpool line at school. This means it can be hard for parents to get their children to exercise.

Many parents hire physical therapists to work with their children individually at home. Some report that a little “roughhousing” helps their child physically and socially. You can also purchase special equipment for “proprioception training” over the Internet.

After-school programs at the YMCA or individual sports like karate and swimming are good choices for Aspies. Another simple strategy is to have your child do physical chores such as making his bed or running upstairs to fetch a toy – anything that gets him moving physically is helpful.

Sleep Issues

Children with autism are often hard to put to bed. They may sleepwalk or have problems staying asleep. Some sleep too much, others too little.

The reasons they have trouble falling asleep are fears, obsessive thoughts, compulsions such as hand-washing or fiddling with their lights, reactions to medications, or simply wanting to stay up with their parents and siblings.

Just as they are too restless to go to bed, children with autism often have trouble waking up. They will move around in the morning and be unable to focus on getting ready for school and other chores.

A child’s sleep problems can affect his parents’ marriage. Most therapists tell parents not to let the child sleep in their bed–to take turns getting up with him. That way each parent gets a full night’s sleep every other night. It is best to teach the child to stay in his bed and not wander around the house. Also, do not allow him to skip school because of missed sleep.

Some parents enforce a strict bedtime routine as a way of calming their child for sleep. Another good trick is to use flannel sheets and experiment with pajama fabrics until you find one that your child tolerates. Enclosing the child in a sleeping bag or under a bed tent can help. So, does playing “white noise” in the background.


REFERENCES

“Adapted Physical Education,” the website for physical education teachers, see http://www.pecentral.org/adapted/adaptedmenu.html

Bashe, Patricia and Barbara Kirby. The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.

Kennedy, Diane. ADHD Autism Connection. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2002.

Myles, Brenda; Cook, Catherine; Miller, Nancy; Rinner, Louann; Robbins, Lisa. Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Issues. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing, 2000.

Myles, Brenda and Jack Southwick. Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing, 1999.

Powers, Michael. Children with Autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2000.

Sohn, Alan and Cathy Grayson. Parenting Your Asperger Child. New York: Perigee Books, 2005.

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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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