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6 Steps to Getting Children with Autism to Go to the Gym

Nathan working out on the treadmill, autism awareness
As we finished our short workout on the treadmill last week I had a sweet experience. The lady two treadmills down from us stopped us and said that she was amazed how well Nathan did. She told me she has a friend with a special needs child and after watching us she felt like she should tell her friend to come to the gym with her child. Yea!!! Why not? We’ve never had any negative comments. I have even had people stop me to say he is the happiest person there working out:).

6 Steps to Getting Autistic Teens to go to the Gym

1. Put it on the schedule and be consistent

Children and adults on the autism spectrum thrive having a visual schedule. Make a schedule or write on the calendar that you are going to be going to the gym and at what time. Here are some great examples of visual calendars you can purchase.
If you want to make your own, you are welcome to. Here is a link to how I made a visual schedule for my son to use when he was younger:
Whatever you do, be consistent. These kiddos on the spectrum thrive in a routine, and going to the gym is such a healthy way to spend your time.
Of course if your child doesn’t take to the gym, maybe you work out at home as part of your routine. But whatever you do, be consistent!

2. Be Mindful of Transitions

If your child struggles with transitions as you leave to go to the gym, use a timer or a countdown to let them know you will be leaving in 10 minutes, then 5 minutes. I have used several timers through the years depending on the age of my children. Here are some of my favorites:
Or, you can just use your phone (as long as your child won’t have a meltdown if you don’t give it to them).

3. Be Aware of too much Stimulus

Different kids on the spectrum react differently to noise, crowds, touch etc. So, be aware of when you choose to go to the gym. Pick a less busy time if your child prefers less people. Feel free to talk to the trainers at the gym to find out what might be the least-busy time to bring your child. If they are sensitive to noise or sounds, bring earbuds or noise cancelling headgear for them to wear.

Another stimulus that can be a little overwhelming are all the televisions that gyms often have going. Our kiddos often love their visual stimulus a little too much:). So, this might actually be a good thing. If you are going at a less busy time, you can even ask the gym to change one of the channels to something your child might enjoy. Or, you can bring your child’s device (iPod or iPad) as a last resort.

I taught our son that we didn’t use our devices at the gym, and he was okay with that–but every kiddo with autism is different.

4. A Little Prep Goes a Long Way

Before you bring your autistic child to the gym, prep them to use a piece of equipment by watching videos on YouTube of people using a treadmill, for example. Our autistic kiddos are visual learners and if you show them a video and then tell them that they too can do that, it will ease this transition to using simple workout equipment.

Also, it is pretty important for you to know how to use the equipment before you put your child with autism on it. Find time to visit the gym, talk to the staff about your child and his or her needs, and learn how to use simple equipment so that you are prepared and know what you are doing once you bring them.

You can also take a video of how to push the buttons to start the machine and show it to your child to prepare them to use the equipment. They are pretty smart when it comes to pushing buttons:).

For higher functioning teens you can practice “appropriate behavior” at the gym and talk to them about what this looks like, the scenarios they might encounter and an appropriate way to respond.

5. Pick Easy Exercise Equipment

Begin with something simple like the treadmill. My son ABSOLUTELY loved the treadmill. He could walk on that all day. I don’t know if it was the repetitive nature of it or what, but he really enjoyed it and could often be found laughing and jumping and giggling as he walked. I always chose to stay right beside him to keep him safe, and we started out slow and worked his way up to faster speeds.

Nathan even started walking backwards on the treadmill after a couple of weeks. He’d just flip around, walk backwards and then giggle. I am glad he thought it was funny because overprotective mama’s heart always went into overdrive when he did this for fear he was going to fall.

Nathan also enjoyed riding a bike and doing a rowing machine for fun. We kept things pretty simple.

My son, Jacob, who has high functioning autism, is obsessed with Basketball. So when we go to the gym, he is always shooting hoops. If your child can communicate verbally, a tour of the gym might not be a bad idea so that they can see what their options are.

5. Increase Exercise Time Each Week

Just like any trainer will tell you, it is good to start out slow and work your way up. I began Nathan at 10 minutes on the treadmill. I would prep him with this before we even went to the gym by telling him/writing on his schedule “Today 10 minutes of walking at the gym.”
Two weeks later it was up to 15 minutes, and then 20. He adapted pretty well, although he got a little distracted after 20 minutes and wanted to go to other equipment. Be flexible. They will have good days and bad–just like the rest of us.

6. Reward Good Behavior

Nathan’s reward was praise. “Great job Nathan. You did it” with lots of high fives.

You can also reward them with a preferred activity afterwards. Nathan’s elementary school teachers taught him the “First, Then” concept. It was pretty simple and they built it out with a small visual schedule that only had two prompts. First they had the non-preferred activity picture. Then they would have a preferred activity picture second.

First, Then Visual Schedule for Autism

For the concept of working out it could look something like this: First a picture of the gym. Second a picture of home. Nathan always wants to know when he will return to his “comfort zone,” so to him that is a reward.

Are you ready to get your child with autism out into the community working out at the gym? Let’s fill the gym with people of all types of abilities, right? Not everyone has to be buff and “perfect” to work out. #ExerciseForEveryone #AutismAwareness

About the author, Tamara

Tamara K. Anderson is a speaker, author, podcaster, and is a professional in HOPE. She has four children who struggle with autism, ADHD, anxiety, visions issues, and all bring her great joy.

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