6 Steps to Getting Autistic Teens to go to the Gym
1. Put it on the schedule and be consistent
2. Be Mindful of Transitions
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
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.
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.