If you have been reading our blog much, you have by now noticed that our kids do a TON of core work. They do pushups and situps. They do bridge and side-plank exercises. This was one of the weirdest things for me when we started. What was the connection, I wondered, between core strength and autism?
We know that autism (along with lots of other brain-related conditions like ADD) is caused by a genetic predisposition combined with environmental factors. Last night I was reading [this article]about cases of twins with autism in which the author cites a Stanford study that came up with the number of 38% genes and 62% environment as contributing factors for autism. This is both scary and exciting because it puts more responsibility and power in our hands as parents than we are sometimes comfortable accepting. We can’t change our childrens’ genes, but we can do a lot to change their environment. Environment in this case is not just the air we breathe and the water we drink. It has to do with the food we eat and (importantly) the way we move (or don’t move) our bodies.
Which brings me to [this article] and [this one]by Valerie Strauss, an occupational therapist who is pushing parents and schools to do more to get kids moving.
I believe that most of us have seen something similar to what Strauss describes here:
I recently observed a fifth grade classroom as a favor to a teacher. I quietly went in and took a seat towards the back of the classroom. The teacher was reading a book to the children and it was towards the end of the day. I’ve never seen anything like it. Kids were tilting back their chairs back at extreme angles, others were rocking their bodies back and forth, a few were chewing on the ends of their pencils, and one child was hitting a water bottle against her forehead in a rhythmic pattern.
The amazing thing is that this was not a special needs class, but a group of neurotypical 5th-graders. Intrigued, Strauss conducted a core-strength study on these children and found that when compared with similar-aged children from 1980 only ONE in TWELVE students had normal core strength. Every time I think about this it blows my mind. But I know that it is true.
It is easy to see that our current lifestyle is not very conducive to the kind of rough, physical play that many of us enjoyed as children. (Here comes the old man in me) When I was a kid in the ‘80s I spend hours EVERY DAY climbing trees, building forts, trying to dig holes to China, playing backyard sports, riding bikes, and rough-housing with my brothers. We used to ride our bikes around on the dirt hills and explore the construction sites up the street from our house. I distinctly remember having dirt caked into the creases in my elbows in the summertime. I remember bumps and bruises and scrapes (and some pretty bad cuts) that my kids have never had.
I used to think that my kids weren’t active because they have autism. Now, however, I am quite sure that their lack of activity at least exacerbates their autism, and I want to do something about it.
Strauss’s conclusion just rings true to me:
Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.
It’s worth asking: why don’t our kids experience the kind of super-active, exploratory play that we had as children? Part of me wants to say that they don’t like it, but another part of me has to recognize that I don’t like it much either. I don’t like my kids playing outside, especially in the front yard, unattended. I would never let them just go explore the neighborhood with other kids. I wouldn’t let them go and play night games with who-knows-who-might-show-up. When my kids get dirty I have to clean them up. If they get hurt we have to take them to the doctor and that costs money. etc. etc. etc.
This year I have learned better than ever that When the body is stimulated, and the core muscles are strong enough to support the body as it is supposed to sit and listen, kids can actually sit and listen. I didn’t see what a problem this was until Anahí was evaluated at Brain Balance. That was when I realized that at five years old she didn’t have the core strength to pick her head up off the floor if she was lying on her back. As I observed her, I realized that anytime she was standing, she was leaning on something. Kimball was stronger, but still very weak. Now they are champs, and it is no surprise that as their core strength has improved, so has their behavior and their performance in school.
So we will keep doing situps.
As always, please feel free to comment on and share this post with your friends and family. We hope our story helps other people working with children and adults with autism. Feel free, as well, to click on the thermometer and donate to help us pay for the Brain Balance program that has done so much for us. Every little bit helps!