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Fitness for Specially Challenged Children – by Rita Jairath

Rita Jairath has a first-hand experience as a mother when it comes to taking care of a specially challenged child. In this article, she shares everything from exercises to diet – how such children can lead a healthy and fit life.

Fitness for Specially Challenged Children – by Rita Jairath

Every child is unique and if the child has special needs, then the uniqueness becomes all the more conspicuous. Even though we have classified disabilities put them into categories and given them specific names, they manifest themselves in their own unique way in every individual. Again, while physical activity can help every single person, it becomes all the more relevant for kids with special needs.

Usually we take so many things for granted in normal children. We teach and involve them in activities according to their age. Some of them may learn very quickly and some of them may take a little longer. But they eventually do pick up and learn.

But when nature has put forth its own impedances then we can’t just take it for granted and we have to make sure that we first need to (zero in) what we can go forward with, and then figure out the methodology that we will use.

We may have to break every minute activity down to simpler steps and patiently take up each micro-step at a time. Everytime a baby step is crossed over, the child must be encouraged and congratulated to boost his/her self-esteem and get a sense of accomplishment.

Just like for everyone else, physical activity helps to keep these children engaged, boosts their self-esteem and gives them a sense of accomplishment on crossing every milestone.

It also helps parents to see and reinforces their faith and confidence. The joy that is felt together helps to strengthen the parent child bond.

Kids with Physical Disabilities

Even when the mobility of kids is limited and they get tired easily, there are many ways to keep them physically active. Many adaptive fitness and sporting activities have been designed by parents, teachers and therapists  that help to strengthen  these kids and eventually even help them move on to activities designed for children who have no issues.

Kids with Autism

Children with autism usually lack social skills and find efficient communication difficult. But the difficulties that autistic children have like fixation and getting obsessed with a particular routine or thing can have a lot of impact on their physical fitness too. Food aversions can lead to weight gain and being too sensitive to environmental stimuli like sound or light, may make it difficult to involve them in sports and fitness activities. But if we figure out the activities or the way in which we can involve the child, it can be extremely helpful. Some kids can participate in sports league for neurotypical kids while others might enjoy a program designed for kids with special needs.

Kids with Intellectual and Learning Disabilities

One of the major benefits of physical activity is that at every tiny step, a child and the parents can feel a sense of accomplishment when they achieve the ability to do something that otherwise looked impossible. This gives a boost to the dwindling self-esteem especially when living in a society where they are otherwise ridiculed at. It is also an excellent stress reliever for everyone.

The fact that now we have the special Olympics in which people from 170 countries participate is a very successful sports program for athletes with special needs.

Asthmatic Children

Strenuous exercise can exacerbate the condition, and further more deteriorate if the child is sensitive to specific weather conditions or when the pollution levels are high.

However breathing exercises, pranayama, certain yogic practices and controlled and well monitored cardiovascular exercises can help to manage the condition. With proper medication and other management strategies, they will not miss out on sporting events and active play that can go a long way in bringing about positive changes.

Children with Attention Deficit Issue

Involving children with ADD or ADHD in physical activity can help to channelize their energy in a positive direction. It can boost their morale. Once they can identify and be involved in a sport that they can enjoy and succeed at, their mood and behaviour will significantly improve at school and home.

Children with Anxiety Disorders

Just like everyone else, physical activity can be a great blessing for children having anxiety disorders. It helps them to manage stress, be positive and redirect their energy in happier things. It also improves the quality of sleep. It is better for children with anxiety disorders to enjoy sports and keep it for physical fitness, health and recreation. Competitive sport can increase anxiety and it is best avoided for children with anxiety.

Tendency for Depression

Working hard on a physical skill, can distract your child from negative thoughts. Physical activity is known to produce serotonin and endorphins and other mood elevating bio chemicals. There is also a sense of accomplishment associated with reaching milestones. The discipline that sports teaches can improve coping skills that manifest themselves in all other aspects of life.

Diabetic Children

Children with type 1 or type 2 diabetes can continue to enjoy sports and play actively with friends. The challenge is that their blood sugar will need to be monitored before, during and after they play so that necessary adjustments can be made. But having diabetes doesn’t prelude participation in sports at all.

Sports for Kids with Autism

Fitness and sports for kids with autism can be both challenging and essential. About two/thirds of teenagers with autism spectrum disorder are either overweight or obese. Kids with autism may find fitness and physical activity difficult. Being obsessed with one particular thing at a time, they may find it nearly disturbing to switch to a physical activity that demands an active effort on their part. To even convince them to get there and being able to learn the knack of it, is challenging as they may not be able to do a particular thing in the first attempt and repeated failures may discourage them even further. Oversensitivity to sights, sounds and tactile stimuli can affect participation, as can limits or delays in motor co-ordination, and planning. Team sports can be especially challenging for kids with autism, who have trouble with communication and social interaction.

The parent or caretaker will have to make a thoughtful endeavour and breakdown each activity into micro-activities and allow the child to take baby steps and move at his/her pace, encouraging rewarding at each mini-victory. This requires patience, skill and love. But it can go a long way in improving the overall personality of the child by boosting the self-esteem as well as helping her to get acclimatize in social situations when involved in team play.

Therefore inspite of these challenges, it is important to find ways to help these kids with autism participate and enjoy physical activities. Regular exercise can prevent or reverse weight gains. It can have therapeutic benefits too. Depending on the program and type of activity, participation can help with sensory integration, co-ordination and muscle tone as well as social skills.


Kids with autism may have strong aversions to the texture, flavour and colour of certain foods with no logical reason. This limits their diet. They tend to consume more sugar, sweetened drinks and snacks than children without autism. The fact that they tend to get obsessed with certain foods that they like can get them entangled in a vicious cycle that may be difficult to get out from. In that case, it has to be regulated and the parent and child can come to a common point, where the child is satisfied with a certain limited amount of her/his favourite food item without completely depriving him/her. Autistic children refuse foods that they don’t like much more often than neurotypical children and may react very aggressively hating these foods further if forced to eat them.

Therefore they should not be forced to have it until they forget and get over the aversion. Some of the medications used to treat symptoms of autism may also lead to weight gain. Different forms of exercises benefit kids with autism in specific ways.

Aerobic Exercise

It helps to decrease self-stimulating behaviour and delivers the same health boosts as it does for neuro typical kids and adults, weight loss, heart health, stress relief. Exercises that improve flexibility and strength training can help to address problems associated with low muscle tone, and also strengthen core muscles which will help with balance and co-ordination.

Few examples of sporting activities that can help children with autism.

  • Swimming: Water provides a soothing sensory input. The child can perform to his best potential and simultaneously be a part of a team.
  • Skating: It is a balancing exercise and the child can make efforts to improvise individually as well as socialise.
  • Running: Track run to cross country run can all enhance and boost the child’s self-esteem. And very less communication is required with team-mates even while being a part of the team.
  • Horse riding: Sometimes kids with autism enjoy and excel in communicating with animals. This can make equine sports both fun and therapeutic.
  • Bowling: Since the nature of this sport is such that there is a constant repetition and ritual, children with autism can enjoy this sport and begin to interact with a small number of other kids who love this game.
  • Martial arts: Since the classes are very structured and the advancement is both incremental and predictable, it is very sensible for autistic children and can boost their self-esteem.

There are several other sports and since every child is unique, it is very advisable to explore and find a sport or physical activity that will suit him/her most.

The coach/teacher who trains your child should emphasize on social skills too, should be patient and be prepared to provide routine and repetition.

Also, even though you have been able to identify an activity, the child should never be forced or pushed so much that it gets counter-productive making him/her eventually dislike the activity.

In the end, life is a collection of moments and a happy, peaceful and satisfying life is all that we aim for.

About The Author

Dr. Rita Jairath

Rita Jairath is an entrepreneur and one of the pioneering athletes in women's bodybuilding in India, she won the pro-card from the International Federation of Bodybuilding. she .. Read More..


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