Back to the “Bad”…
Are you a Runner?
A common question in the fitness world. Many of us label ourselves as runners, bikers, swimmers, lifters, etc. While many may try to argue that one is better than the other, overall it is simply a way of identifying a passion, hobby or fitness modality that one prefers. In the world of Autism, being labeled a “runner” is not a good thing. In fact, most parents, caregivers and teachers associate being a “runner” as a very bad or negative characteristic.
Many parents of children with Autism will place special locks on all their doors after having to chase their child around the neighborhood on numerous occasions or after having to make the dreaded phone call to the police that their child is missing.
Many caregivers and aides have experienced the leisurely walk with a child with Autism that ends in a near death experience as the child darts into traffic with no hesitation.
It is not exactly easy for a teacher to leave a room full of children to chase after one child that darts from the room in the middle of class.
One second they are present and accounted for and the next, they are gone. It is scary, dangerous and just plain inconvenient. Unless mom, the aide or teacher is an avid sprinter, it also probably is not easy to catch them. As an aide for individuals with autism, I experienced many sessions interrupted with a sprint down the block, followed by the catch (for lack of better terms), and then, if possible, a calm and quiet re-direction back to the house as yelling, reprimanding or making the child feel threatened in any way will only escalate the situation.
While there is nothing good about having a child who consistently runs away, this bad characteristic is actually the very first thing that sparked my interest in providing structured physical activity for these children. Here is what I saw:
1) Very few resources and programs available to parents addressing specific physical needs of children with special needs
2) Children who experience extreme tantrums and behaviors and are unable to communicate and express what they are feeling or what set them off
3) Children who use physical activity as an escape or way to calm themselves down but in a very uncontrolled manner
4) Most of the kids that are “runners” are fast, really fast. So why not take a strength and teach the child to use it in appropriate circumstances. You don’t want to enforce that running all together is bad, you want to enforce certain circumstances when it is safe to run. You also don’t want to try to replace a different sensory activity that doesn’t equate to their behavior (ie, a child who runs will most likely need some sort of physical release to calm them down; a child who squeezes or pinches, usually benefits more from a compression sensation such as being wrapped in a blanket or squeezing a ball).
Many children with autism are going to school all day and then in ABA type programs and other after school activities that place more and more demands on them. Lets just say, if I were them, I think I would run as well:) And this is how I started implementing physical activity into the children’s program. Our sessions went from “when can I never see Jen again” to “when will Jen be back” and even “when can I kiss Jen?” In other words, our sessions were much more enjoyable and more productive. The child was more apt to attend to a specific task and was much more focused during the task if we constantly rotated in “free time” that involved physical activity (and I don’t think any parent is going to argue that “free time” involves exercise)! This also helped teach the children how to regulate their moods and situations where they felt threatened, overwhelmed, over-stimulated, etc and again gave them choices, such as run, take a walk or jump on a trampoline. The parents were then encouraged to support this by having visual icons on hand to allow the child to communicate what they needed/wanted to to do calm down (of course, only give options that you are going to allow at that specific time).
While I would never wish a “runner” on any parent that has a child with Autism, I am Thankful that I have experienced a few “Bad” cases of “runners.” These cases opened my eyes to a more successful way of programming, a way to incorporate more structured physical activity into their lives and eventually led to starting FITBuddies. FITBuddies is not only about improving the health and wellness of this special population, it’s also about teaching these children/young adults how to regulate their moods, behaviors, etc with safe activities.