What exercises are safest for children, adolescents, and adults with autism? Well, it depends. Certainly some choices are better than others, but the other half of this equation is ensuring that the exercise is being taught at an appropriate level of progression or, more likely, regression.

When we consider some of the most common physical challenges for children and adolescents with ASD, the terms “Low tone,” “poor motor planning,” and “trunk/core stability.” While these terms may ring vague or technical, their real-world implications can be more problematic over time. When we observe movement patterns with many individuals on the autism spectrum, we might not that they lack the strength and stability to perform some important daily life tasks. Additionally, when we look closer at the movements themselves, we can see some compensations.

Compensatory movement is, essentially, our way of “overriding” movement or strength limitations. We turn, twist, or bend a certain way to pick up a heavy object or while carrying a heavy package. While a single instance of compensatory activity is not likely to cause harm, a lifetime of sub-optimal movement can lead to chronic injury or dysfunction. That’s in the long-term. In the short term parents may note “poor posture” or aversion to physical activity being problems.

When we design fitness and adapted PE programs for the autism and special needs populations, rule 1…

There is no such thing as an autism-specific exercise.  They don’t exist. There are simply exercises. Exercises for human beings. And when we understand the purpose and function of an exercise it becomes clear whether it is an appropriate addition to a program.

What Doesn’t Work

In our Autism Fitness programming, some exercises are conspicuously absent.

What, no jumping jacks?!

Why no crunches or situps? I thought you said there were a lot of weak cores?

Aren’t pushups good for upper body strength?

Consider that an exercise is only as beneficial  as it is being performed.  Knowing the common physical deficits for children and teens with autism leads us to a few important questions…

Will the athlete be able to perform the exercise safely?

Will the athlete be able to use proper technique?

What are the consequences if form starts to break down?

Let’s look at jumping jacks. Surely this is a great exercise? We see them all over group exercises programs!

Well. What’s the purpose? The jumping part promotes lower body power and there’s a coordination and timing element to the arm and leg movement. But jumping has landing, and landing skills are not always discussed.

Many children and adolescents with autism land with flat feet and stiff ankles when jumping. Landing with a slight squat (dispersing the force of the landing) is integral to  the jump being a “good” exercise choice. Assuming that the exercise will automatically be performed correctly is one of the biggest oversights.

Cruches and sit-ups are often touted as great “core” or “abdominal” exercise and social media is rife with special needs group and individual programs that include these exercises as “working on abs” and they’re just…not. The crunch or sit-up is an easy go-to because it requires no equipment and it always looks like the athlete is “doing something.”

But if we really examine what is happening the majority of the time, the athlete is using momentum and lower back (lumbar) flexion to complete the movement. This is almost exactly the opposite of creating a strong, stable trunk. Rather than isolate and activate the abdominals, most individuals will use the low back to flex forward into the sitting position. The exercise is not being performed as intended and is likely doing more harm than good.  

But, but, but, but…

Sorry. Biomechanics and spinal research wins here.