Gymnastics programs for autism

Caitlin having fun in the gym

One in 88 children are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). And the number of children with autism continues to grow. Between 2007 and 2012 there was a 78 percent increase in reported diagnoses.

A complex neurodevelopmental disorder, ASD impacts normal brain development resulting in difficulties with social interaction, language and behaviour. Like everyone, children living with autism have different abilities and unique personalities. So children with same diagnosis may act very differently and have different skills. And while each child with an ASD will exhibit a unique pattern of behaviour, some of the common symptoms are:

  • Difficulty initiating and maintaining eye contact
  • Potential aversion to physical contact and affection
  • Problems recognizing and understanding emotions
  • Tendency towards social isolation, verbal or cognitive delays
  • Difficulty perceiving social nuances and etiquette
  • Routine oriented behaviour
  • Visual, auditory or touch sensitivities
  • Difficulty with imaginative play
  • Aggressive or self harming behaviour

Therapy

Traditional therapy options include behaviour and communication therapies, educational therapies, family therapies and medications.

Another option is gymnastics. Yes, gymnastics!

Many PLAY Gymnastics BC clubs have programs for children with autism. They may be integrated into recreational gymnastics classes, take part in specialized programs or benefit from one-on-one sessions.

This type of program generally takes place ina gymnastics setting. By using equipment such as trampolines, balance beams and the bars, children improve their motor skills. At the same time, it fosters social interactions to improve their social skills.

But gymnastics? I don’t know if my child can flip and swing like that.

Gymnastics is one of the few activities that includes all seven of the fundamental movement skills. And PLAY Gymnastics BC clubs have programs for participants of all ages and abilities.

So while your child may not be tumble and flip at the Olympics, by taking part in recreational gymnastics they will see benefits such as:

  • increased physical activity (increased cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, balance, flexibility, coordination of fine movement, ,etc.
  • healthy way to control obesity
  • improvement in self-confidence and self-image
  • increased social skills (verbal/nonverbal communication, social interaction peer to peer and peer to coach)
  • motivation to try and do new things (increased attention span and focus, decreased behavioural problems)

Who  does it help?

Caitlin was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was four years old. Before beginning gymnastics through the Empowering Steps Movement Therapy (ESMT) at Coquitlam’s Club Aviva in 2011, she had spatial awareness issues; lack of coordination; sensory needs; and fears of heights and moving backwards, all of which kept her from participating in many day to day activities with her peers.

Since startingn the program, her mom says that Caitlin has experienced great improvement in all gross motor areas, and her confidence has increased tremendously. Her teachers and SEAs at school and her occupational therapist have remarked upon her approved abilities in all areas, which her mom feels is directly correlated to the therapies she receives through the ESMT program.

Caitlin’s story is just one of many success stories. In 2011, a pilot data study of the ESMT program reported significant improvements in children’s functioning including:

  • Enhanced self-esteem/confidence (75%)
  • Improved attention control (77%)
  • Improved communication skills (69%)
  • Enhanced social skills (55%)
  • Better academic performance (44%)
  • Decreased behavioural problems (50%)
  • Improved sleeping (27%)

And overall, children who had spent 12 months in the ESMT program were noted to have gained on average one full motor developmental stage.

How is this possible?

Research shows that in most individuals, including those with autism, improvements in fitness levels enhance:

  1. Physiological functioning with improved balance, speed, agility, strength, flexibility, speed and endurance.
  2. Positive social behaviour and learning through structured coaching, physical movement therapy discourages aggression and self-injurious behaviour, improves attention span, promotes self-esteem, increases general levels of happiness and other positive social outcomes.

PLAY Gymnastics BC programs

PLAY Gymnastics BC clubs are great places for children to learn to be active – there are lots of mats; fun and safe equipment; and trained coaches.  Many offer programming designed for children with special needs, either by incorporating them into programming or offering private classes.

And most importantly gymnastics is fun! At PLAY Gymnastics BC clubs throughout the province, children are PLAYing and having fun. At the same time they are learning about acceptable behaviour, social interaction and language.

Contact your local PLAY Gymnastics BC club to learn more about how recreational gymnastics can help all children, including those with an ASD.

About Empowering Steps Movement Therapy

ESMT logoEmpowering Steps Movement Therapy (ESMT) is an innovative, research-based program established by Vivien Symington. Involving highly skilled and specialized coaching for children with autism and other neuro-developmental disorders, ESMT focuses on motor skill improvement as well as enhancing motivation, attention control, social and communication skills, confidence and self- esteem.

ESMT is now offered at two facilities in the Lower Mainland (Club Aviva in Coquitlam and the West Vancouver Rec Centre). Each facility is supervised by an expert in the field who has a Kinesiology Bachelor’s degree, was trained by Symington, and has a minimum of two years experience as a trained ESMT staff.

The results of the 2011 pilot data study captured the attention of many senior researchers in neurodevelopmental disability professions across Canada. Led by Dr. J.P. Collet at UBC Medical School and Children and Family Research Institution at B.C. Children’s Hospital, international funding for a four year evidence based research project was secured. The goal of the research is to define holistic intervention, validate the ESMT program and make it more accessible throughout North America.

More information

Empowering Steps Movement Therapy (ESMT): http://empoweringsteps.ca/
Club Aviva: http://clubaviva.ca/
Autism Speaks: http://www.autismspeaks.ca/

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