Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Finding Fitness for Kids with Special Needs
Incorporating activity into your child's daily life

by Carrie Bishop

October 01, 2011

Sometimes a good, hard workout is all it takes to turn a day around. The mental clarity a spin class, game of pick-up basketball, or simple walk around the block can bring to an individual is priceless and sometimes is the only real way to find life’s center. That goes for typical folks and those with special needs, too. Nothing can beat physical activity.

“I think physical fitness is probably even more important for kids with special needs,” said Brooke Taflinger, inclusion supervisor with Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation. That’s because she has seen physical activity improve kids’ social skills, physical health and strength, and confidence. In her estimation physical activity helps make a person more well-rounded and is an important element to a quality life.

It’s hard to deny that kids with special needs, like their typical peers, need physical activity. Following are a few ways to kick fitness to the top of your child’s priority list.

Value physical fitness and the benefits it brings your child.

Whether the child takes medications that cause weight gain, or coordination eludes him or her due to sensory input problems, or any host of issues, physical activity can improve health and self esteem when done in a supportive atmosphere. Also, the social opportunities that come with group fitness activities cannot be underestimated.

“In general, any physical activity is going to improve muscle strength, coordination, balance. When all those things improve and they see themselves able to do things then that just boosts their confidence and overall happiness. The looks on their faces when they do something the first time is priceless,” said Beth Schweigel, outreach coordinator for Hamilton County Special Olympics and tae kwon do instructor for kids with special needs.

Keep exercise fun for your child.

Taflinger said fitness shouldn’t be a chore. It should be something that’s fun. She advises parents to find out what the child’s interests are and make them part of the child’s routine. “It could be dancing, basketball, bike riding. Fitness doesn’t mean the child has to go into a fitness center and lift weights or run. If it’s fun they won’t know they are being physically active, they’re just having fun,” she said.

Find schools that value physical education.

Sadly many schools have had to put physical education on the back burner, but some are prioritizing physical education and incorporating fitness into students’ daily routines. The Independence Academy of Indiana is one example.

Kids at The Independence Academy, which is a private school for kids with high-functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome, are fortunate that physical activity is just part of their day. They get breaks from morning classes to walk the school grounds to stimulate their creative juices and to develop the habit of exercise. They also have time after lunch every day to go outside and participate in a physical activity of their choosing. Staff is on site to help get the kids to try new activities.

“They are getting the exercise we know all kids need and don’t get enough of today,” said Susan Le Vay, director and co-founder of the school. She said that oftentimes these students go home and don’t feel like part of the neighborhood kids. They get that sense of community here by going out after lunch playing soccer, bocce ball and other sports.

The school has gone so far as to integrate a recumbent bike, stair stepper and yoga mats into its sensory break areas. Kids can also elect to participate in a healthy challenge each winter that encourages them to exercise in different ways to keep their physical activity up despite cold weather. Last spring the school celebrated the end of the challenge with a smoothie party.

Explore area activities.

Kids with special needs have terrific options for getting fit in the Indianapolis area.

Schweigel, who has a son with autism, points families to the Special Olympics as a good starting point.

She said her experience with the organization was so wonderful that she now works for them. She praises it for giving her son many opportunities to participate in things at his ability level. It helped build his social skills by giving him new friends and her family a network of people with whom to socialize. Plus it’s all free, even the equipment.

“The commitment is very optional. You don’t have to go to every practice to participate in every game. The more you practice the better you are going to be, but it’s all very flexible. If you sign up and try it but it is not working then you don’t have to go any more and you’re not out any money,” said Schweigel.

Of course Special Olympics is not the only game in town. Community organizations like Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation offer various sports and fitness activities year round for kids and adults with special needs.

Power Kid is another program touted by many in town. Operating out of DeVeau’s School of Gymnastics gym in Fishers, Power Kids works with kids ages 3 through high school who have special needs. Brian Jones, the coach and founder of Power Kids, describes it as a gymnastics-based program with social components. Lesson plans are highly modified to each student.

Of course, these are just a handful of fitness outlets for kids with special needs. The list is long, but a few others worth checking into include Carmel Dads Club, YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Challenger Baseball, Cornerstone Pediatric Rehabilitation, and TOPSoccer.

Lead by example.

“Kids learn so much from their parents. It’s important for parents to live active lifestyles so their child can mimic that,” said Taflinger.

And a little exercise never hurt mom or dad either.