For Seth Morris, a 16-year-old autistic boy from Atlanta, a healthy diet and exercise plan of baseball, walking and weightlifting were the answer. Thanks in large part to his mom, Muhsinah Morris, Seth lost a whopping 70 pounds in the first year of his fitness journey and continues to thrive through healthy eating, exercise and extracurricular activities. His wellness journey wasn’t always smooth sailing, but with a bit of creativity, discipline and dedication, his family is helping him learn to eat healthy and take care of his body—two habits that will serve him well in the future.
The Benefits of an Active Lifestyle
Regular physical activity is one of the most important things people can do for their health. According to the CDC, being physically active can improve brain health, manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities.1 It’s no secret that what’s good for the body is good for the mind. Even small amounts of physical activity have been shown to reduce mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
“Studies have shown that exercise helps with executive function, anxiety, stress management and mood. In general, people who have an active lifestyle are much more emotionally resilient and focused. There also seems to be some evidence that physical exercise helps people with depression and ADHD, which are commonly co-occurring conditions with autism,” says Dr. Jean Gehricke, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at The Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at University of California, Irvine (UCI). UCI is part of the Autism Speaks Autism Care Network (ACNet), a network of 20 health centers in the U.S. and Canada that is delivering better care to children with autism and their families. To find your local ACNet site, go to autismcarenetwork.org/locations.
Seth is seeing these benefits firsthand. According to his mom, becoming healthier has helped both his body and mind. Since starting his exercise regiment, Seth has become more focused at school and no longer struggles with behavioral outbursts. “Putting his body to the test and making him do hard work like running, throwing a ball and lifting weights is really helping him stay grounded. I haven’t seen any self-injurious behavior in years, any aggression in school – all of that is gone completely,” says Muhsinah.
Triple Play : These three tips can put you and your child on the path to a healthier future
Tip #1: Turn exercise into a hobby.
Being active doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym three times a week. It’s more important to get autistic youth engaged in healthy activities that they are interested in and feel connected to. That looks different for everybody. Making fitness into a hobby helps motivate children and teens to maintain the activity throughout their lives, even though it challenges them physically.
“We want to help kids develop an appreciation and a motivation to be physically active, and it doesn’t have to be part of a physical exercise program,” explains Dr. Gehricke. “We don’t need them to become competitive. That might be way too much. It’s more important to go out, take a walk, or run and chase each other, always keeping in mind the playful aspect, whatever the child reacts to positively. That’s a very important part of reinforcement.”
Dr. Gehricke recommends observing what your child enjoys and what kind of activities they do when they are relaxed in their natural environment. You might see them running around or bouncing up and down. All of that can help inform the activities you involve them in. Team sports can be challenging for some kids on the spectrum, so it’s important to choose activities where they feel included.
Giving your child a choice of activity can also be helpful, Muhsinah says. “Instead of telling Seth what activities we think he can do, he gets to choose the activities that he wants to do. For example, instead of telling him that he has to walk on the treadmill, we ask if he wants to walk in the neighborhood or in the park. Maybe he wants to go run bases at the baseball diamond or go to the basketball court. We are giving him a choice to decide what he wants to do, and I think it gives him agency over his own health. Then, we talk to him about what fuels his body to be able to do the things that he enjoys.”
Tip #2: Involve the whole family
Motivating yourself to be healthy is a challenge for anyone, but family support can help. For Seth, a big motivation to stay healthy is working out with his dad and brothers.
In addition to participating in the Sunshine League baseball team and the Special Olympics of Georgia, Seth walks twice a week and weightlifts with his three older brothers. As he grows, Muhsinah says his regiment adapts to his changing interests. Recently, he has begun hosting and participating in a golf tournament with his dad. “Seth is excited that he’s part of the big boys, gets to work out with his brothers and be his dad’s golf caddy,” says Muhsinah.
Getting family involvement can also be very helpful for maintaining a healthy diet. Muhsinah encourages Seth to eat healthy by limiting the number of unhealthy options available at their home. The whole family is committed to eating clean and healthy food.
“In terms of food choice, I realized that it was me as a parent that needed to set the boundaries,” she says. “I always make fruit and vegetables available. He can always get an apple or an orange. I don’t keep any sweets in the house, and chips and popcorn stay locked up. As a family, we try to avoid processed foods, as much as possible. The whole family conforms to only having water and Powerade in the house, and not a whole lot of Powerade. When we began this journey, I had to shift in my mind that this is what our groceries look like now. We don’t buy the junk that looks so good.”
Tip #3: Be patient with any food aversions and sensory differences
Physical exercise is only one piece of a healthy lifestyle. Another equally important piece is diet and nutrition. Many people with autism have sensory aversions that make them very selective with their diet, which can make encouraging healthy eating more difficult for parents. To learn more about how sensory differences can cause feeding issues, download our Parent’s Guide to Feeding Behavior in Children with Autism.2
“A lot of autistic kids are very picky eaters. Expanding their palette and bringing in heterogeneous foods that are healthier, is a challenge for any parent,” says Dr. Gehricke. “It’s hard to explain nutrition to a younger child, so behavioral strategies that reinforce trying different foods are the go-to techniques with younger kids. It requires persistence. Let the child have their favorite meal, but encourage them to have a spoon of peas or one piece of broccoli, before they eat. It takes an observing and persisting parent to gently push and remind them how important it is to eat other things.”
Muhsinah had to get creative in order to encourage Seth to eat a healthy diet. Because he has an aversion to soft textures, he is only willing to eat foods that are crispy or crunchy. So, his diet primarily consists of salads, lots of fruit, meats, and crunchy raw vegetables, like carrots and celery.
Explaining the importance of healthy eating is critical, particularly for adolescents and teens. “As they grow older, oftentimes their tastebuds change, so naturally they become more willing to try different things,” explains Dr. Gehricke. “For older kids, explaining the value of healthy foods is important. You can talk about the nutrients and vitamins a person needs, and make an activity where you identify which foods have those ingredients.”
Tips For a Healthier Life
Learning to enjoy exercise and prioritize physical fitness doesn’t happen overnight – developing healthy habits takes time and dedication. Instilling the importance of health and nutrition in children is another matter altogether, particularly when your child is autistic.
The symptoms of autism can make it more difficult for autistic children and teens to get involved with physical activities or eat healthy foods. For example, communication challenges and issues with motor control and balance might make joining a game of ball at recess very stressful. Sensitivities to certain food textures or flavors might limit a child’s diet, making healthy eating more difficult.
Because of these challenges, research shows that young people with autism are at higher risk of being overweight or obese,3 which can result in a host of health issues later in life. This risk is especially high because some medications commonly prescribed to autistic people have a side effect of weight gain. To avoid these risks, it is important for parents to start teaching their children healthy habits as early as possible, and in a way that includes their needs, interests and preferences.
Depending on your child’s level of communication, explaining facts about diet and nutrition may be difficult. What has worked for Muhsinah and Seth is watching videos together of kids his age working out and taking care of their bodies. Seth wants to be a baker, so he and his mom also spend time talking about portion sizes and appropriate quantities of certain unhealthy foods. Though he does not always express his understanding in the moment, Muhsinah says that these videos and the guidance she gives him every day have made a big difference in his eating habits.
“I am teaching him healthy habits through our daily interactions,” she says. “I also try to remember that he’s a teenager, and boys eat everything. He is growing, so everything in moderation. I don’t police his food, but I do set limits and allow him to choose.”
For more physical fitness resources, head over to https://www.autismspeaks.org/physical-fitness
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Marta Chmielowicz is the Content Manager of Mission Delivery at Autism Speaks, where she leads science communications to advance the mission of Autism Speaks to create an inclusive world for all individuals with autism throughout their lifespan.
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