The most recent statistics show that approximately 1 in 100 -110 children between the ages of 3 and 17 in the United States have some form of autism. Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by the limited ability or inability to socialize, limited ability or inability to communicate and repetitive patterns of behavior.
Given the nature of autism, teens with autism are often less than physically fit. In fact, according to Dr. Marjorie Solomon, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California, autistic teens are often overweight…
Dr. Solomon: Teens, as well as younger children, living with autism are overweight – some considerably so – due for a number of reasons. Some are overweight as a result of the medications they are on; some medications used to treat autism come with the side effect of weight gain. Other reasons have more to do with the nature of autism. Sports and exercise often include team participation, which is difficult to many teens with autism and impossible for others. Another reason for their lack of interest is their inability to comprehend the rules of the game and skills needed to play.
Parentingteens.com: In your professional opinion, do you feel schools should push autistic teens to participate in sports?
Dr. Solomon: No, I don’t think they should be pushed. But to encourage an autistic teen to participate in physical activities on a regular basis for the purpose of maintaining a healthy weight and agility is important – as long as they’re encouraged toward the right types of activities for their individual situation.
Parentingteens.com: Right type of activities?
Dr. Solomon: Autism limits a child’s ability to function in fast-paced social settings. They do not have the capability to play team-based sports where winning and losing is dependent on communication between players and cooperation between players. For instance, basketball, football, soccer, hockey… these are sports that require too much contact and interaction with teammates and have too many rules. On the other hand, swimming, horseback riding, track and skating are all great options for teens with higher-functioning forms of autism.
Parentingteens.com: These sports are good because they can be done alone or in small groups with minimal contact and competition – is that what you are saying?
Dr. Solomon: Yes.
Parentingteens.com: Do you think schools do enough to meet the needs of autistic students in the area of providing suitable physical education opportunities?
Dr. Solomon: I think that depends on the individual school – funding, number of students needing such services and staffing and facilities.
Parentingteens.com: If special classes aren’t available, do you feel teens with autism should be integrated into classes with non-autistic students? And if so, should the autistic students be shown special or preferential treatment?
Dr. Solomon: There really is no one definitive answer to either of those questions. I think this should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. If students are high functioning, then being integrated into the class of non-autistic students is likely to work out just fine. Yes, there will be some limitations depending on what activities are being played, but all in all, they should be allowed to do their best and let it go at that – just like any other student. Each student – no matter what their limitations are or are not – should be encouraged to do their best and praised for doing so.
Parentingteens.com: Should autistic teens be coddled or allowed to just ‘do their own thing’?
Dr. Solomon: No, they shouldn’t be coddled. You want to encourage social responsibility in those who are autistic. To excuse them from proper behavior that is within their proximal development zone is not doing anyone any favors.
Parentingteens.com: Proximal development zone?
Dr. Solomon: Their potential – the maximum grade – level mentality they will reach.
Parentingteens.com: That makes sense. What happens when you push beyond that?
Dr. Solomon: Frustration and emotional pain. Teens with autism want to build relationships – and they do…to the extent that they can. Autistic teens also feel emotional pain when they are excluded, made fun of and bullied. Their pain causes them to withdraw from society even more – making their condition even more evident.
Parentingteens.com: The school obviously shouldn’t bear the full responsibility of keeping kids in shape. What can parents do to help their autistic teens?
Dr. Solomon: Parents know their children best, so they should definitely be involved. Parents know their teen’s strengths and weaknesses, their proximal development zone and what motivates them vs. what frustrates them to the point of quitting or giving up. Being an encourager and cheerleader of sorts to help them overcome some of their challenges is a major part of parenting any child – but even more so with someone with autism. Parents should also work closely with teachers and coaches to make sure things go in a positive direction.
Parentingteens.com: And what about those who are severely autistic?
Dr. Solomon: Children and teens with severe autism will be limited to activities such as walking, horseback riding, music and dancing and communicating through what is called picture exchange communication. But team sports of any kind will be impossible.
Parentingteens.com: What would you like to leave us with in regards to relating with autistic teens – particularly in regards to sports and exercise?
Dr. Solomon: Students, teachers and people in general need to know that autistic children are bright, intelligent, talented and have feelings, hopes and dreams just like anyone else.