Adaptive fitness exercises for autism

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 54 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This disorder is rampant in all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups.

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Due to the growing number of autistic children, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and staying fit can become challenging. Autistic children are more likely to have gross motor imbalances, and there are fewer fitness programs specifically designed to suit their needs.


In order to rectify physical imbalances, here is a list of the top 5 adaptive fitness exercises for autism. You can find several personal trainers that will help you but since not all autistic children and young adults can afford expensive corrective therapies, adaptive training at home can help. These adaptive exercises are designed to improve movement and mental ability, thus, improving the quality of life.


What are the Adaptive Fitness Exercises for Autism?


While it can be challenging to introduce a new activity for children and adults with the autistic spectrum, autism exercises are vital for their health. The following are the top 5 adaptive fitness exercises for autism that greatly benefit their health and well-being.


1. Scramble

This exercise is famous for promoting autism fitness and originated from the IYCA Founder Brian Grasso. It is a fantastic warm-up autism exercise that can boost body movements and balance. This adaptive training also helps to sharpen listening skills, recognize cues, and move with coordination.


Start by lying on your stomach on a soft, even surface. For your comfort, you can also use a yoga mat.  Slowly turn into a quadruped position by placing your hands and knees on the floor. The third position is quickly bending your knees and then jumping up.


You can do this autism exercise with an instructor who can give you cues. Doing this will help you concentrate on listening and the task on hand while recognizing abstract cues before moving your body. Scramble is one of the top 5 adaptive fitness exercises for autism proven to be effective and reliable.


2. Bear Crawls

This autism exercise is fantastic and a great help to promote proper body awareness. It can stabilize the shoulders, strengthen the trunk, and improve motor planning.


To do this, start with a quadruped position. Place your knees and hands firmly on the floor. After that, slowly bend your legs and start walking using your feet and hands to cross the area and move around. Do not turn your hands into fists. Your fingers must be spread evenly on the floor while your palms should not lose contact with the floor.

Trainers or parents can assist the child by guiding from their hips and prompting whenever necessary. You can execute bear crawl backwards, forwards and laterally.


Once you get comfortable, you can slowly increase the speed and change directions.


3.    Mirror Exercises

Autistic children are more likely to have difficulty socializing and responding to their environment. Hence, mirror exercises are great for encouraging the child to copy what the other person is doing. This adaptive training improves the coordination between the brain and the body, increases awareness, and allows them to be comfortable socializing with other people.


Stand and face your partner with your hands firmly placed by your side. Now, your partner will start making slow circles using their arms. Mimic the same movement.


Once you are comfortable with the first, simple movements, your partner will proceed to complex movements. Copy the exact movement in such a way that you are looking at yourself in front of a mirror. For instance, if your partner is making a flap using their left arm, you also push a flap using your right arm.
Lightly touching hands can give you the feedback you need while doing this activity. Your partner may use other parts of the body, such as head and legs. This autism exercise should last for at least three minutes.


4. Medical Ball Slams

Autistic children are most likely to suffer from short-term memory. Hence, adaptive training such as medical ball slams that can develop their memory is excellent. It stimulates the brain centers, strengthens the core, and improves balance. This autism exercise is also a great way to socialize.

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You start by standing in a marked position. Raise the ball over your head, and then throw it towards your waiting partner. Ensure that it produces a slam by throwing the ball into the floor using as much force as you can. You can hold the ball between your legs then slowly scoop it forward to throw. You can also jump or do whatever you like as long as it can exert more force.

autistic boy enjoying adaptive exercise

5. Arm Circles

Children with autism require feedback to the body, and the best way to do that is by executing movements that are observable in autistic children. It helps to control repetitive behavior such as arm flapping.


Arm circles are one of the top 5 adaptive fitness exercises for autism and excellent upper-body training. It strengthens the body and improves flexibility. Best of all, anyone can do arm circles without extra equipment.


Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your arms should be placed firmly by your side. Then, slowly extend your arms to the side of your shoulder height. Once you are comfortable, start making circles using your hands but keep your hands straight. Over time, you can make the circles bigger with each rotation to stimulate movement from your shoulders. Repeat the movement for at least 20 times before moving in the opposite direction.

Resistance Band Exercises for Persons with Physical Disabilities

One type of exercise you can do to engage in resistance is actually using resistance or elastic bands. Simply adhere one end of the band to an object (or body part) that is stationary and work against that stable force. Here are a few exercises you can do with resistance bands if you have a physical disability:

Yoga Postures with Resistance Bands

Whether you have limited mobility or complete immobility in certain areas of your body, using elastic bands in simple yoga postures is an easy resistance exercise you can do. While sitting, loop the middle of your resistance band around your foot. Extend your leg (or leave it where it is) and lift up with your arms. Let yourself sink slowly into this posture to reap the full benefits of the stretch. Perform this on both sides.

TRX Exercises

TRX is a type of workout that incorporates resistance bands into cardio-quick exercise reps. This will require a specific type of resistance bands and a connection that enables the bands to dangle from the ceiling. After adjusting the straps to reach down to the floor so you can perform the exercise will sitting, you’ll grip the handles and go to town!

Aquatic Exercises for Persons with Physical Disabilities

Have you ever tried to “run” in the pool? It’s like running in a dream: You’re putting in a lot of work, but you’re not getting very far. That’s because the water pushes back against you as you try to move through it. In other words, there’s a lot of resistance there. Here are some aquatic exercises you can do with a physical disability:


Running underwater is basically impossible — running, by definition, is fast — but walking in the water is attainable in a way that is just challenging enough. Doing a few laps around the pool ensure that you’re getting your cardio in while working on balance and building strength. You can also hold onto the edge of the pool and walk in place, or hold onto it with one hand while “walking” your legs with the other.


If possible, lean against the edge of the pool, facing the water with your arms out at a T, gripping the ledge with your hands. Cycling your legs is another great cardio exercise that becomes a resistance exercise when done in the pool. If you’re not able to cycle your legs, grip the side of the pool with one hand and manually move one leg at a time in a cycling motion to get the same benefits.

Gravity-Resistant Exercises for Persons with Physical Disabilities

You’re constantly being pushed down by gravity. Just sitting upright is a way of resisting it, if you think about it. An exercise that resists the force of gravity is one that can help you increase your endurance, strength, and muscle mass.

Arm or Leg Raises

The great thing about gravity-resistant exercises is that you can perform them as quickly or as slowly as you want. Arm or leg raises, for example, can even be stationary. You could simply raise your arms and leave them there for a count of 10 before setting them at your sides again. You could also raise them in reps. It’s up to you!

Sit Ups

We love sit ups because almost anyone can perform them to some degree, regardless of their mobility level. You may modify these to crunches and get practically the same benefits. Each time you raise your chest off the ground, you’re pushing against gravity and building strength.

Weightlifting Exercises for Persons with Physical Disabilities

Weightlifting is the ultimate resistance exercise for persons with physical disabilities. The great thing is that you don’t have to be a bodybuilder to lift weights. Just as long as you’re challenging yourself, it doesn’t matter if you’re working with five-pound weights or 100-pound ones. Here are a few weightlifting exercises you can do:

  • Dumbbell Exercises
  • Medicine Ball Exercises
  • Gym Machine Exercises

Top Three Exercise Equipment for Special Needs

As personal trainers for special needs children, our clients ask us a lot of questions. One of the most common questions they ask us on a regular basis is “what types of in-home exercises can my son or daughter do?” Inasmuch as we specialize in physical fitness training for special needs kids, this is not an easy question to answer. This is because the type of in-home exercises they can do is highly dependent upon their particular special needs and what level of fitness they are at. It may also depend on which item of exercise equipment for special needs they will be able to work with.

The good news is that you and your special needs child can start at any point in a physical fitness program. With a little time, knowledge, and patience are several ways to modify every exercise. You can alter them to be easier for your child or harder as their level of fitness improves. To help with this, we have selected our top three types of exercise equipment for special needs children. Each of them is designed to allow your child to perform a variety of different movements. Worth noting is that each of the three pieces of equipment will work great for individuals with autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and more.

1.) The SandBell

The Sandbell is our first choice for our top three pieces of exercise equipment for special needs, Your child can use this piece of equipment in the gym with their personal trainer or at home while you assist and encourage them. The SandBell is an incredibly simple, safe, and cost-effective piece of equipment.

If you have never heard of the SandBell, here is how Hyperwear, the manufacturer, describes it:

“SandBell sand-filled neoprene disk free weights from Hyperwear are designed to deliver more effective lift, lunge, toss, squat and slam functional exercises. Moving sand gets your body working in ways that dumbbells, medicine balls, and kettlebells cannot. Made from soft but durable neoprene, Hyperwear SandBells are also safer for you and your floors.”

According to Hyperwear, their SandBell is one of the most effective and versatile free weights available today. Your child can use it to improve their core strength, build lean muscle, improve their agility, and the strength of their grip, and more. This makes it an excellent piece of exercise equipment for special needs.

One of the biggest reasons we like the SandBell so much is because it provides a fully functional type of exercise. What this means is that movements with the SandBell ranging from picking it up to lifting with it, the exercises represent movements your child does daily.

2.) 6” Hurdles

These hurdles are our second choice of the top three pieces of exercise equipment for special needs. You probably think of speed and agility hurdles as something you did for track and field back in your high school days. Or perhaps in terms of the Olympics. But why we like them is that can really help the special needs population.

Not only this, but these short hurdles are easy to use, budget-friendly, and are easy to find somewhere to store them. As part of your child’s daily workout, they can combine going across the hurdles carrying a SandBell.

Here’s a good sample workout you can try at home:

*Using five 6″-inch hurdles, create a straight-line course with them spread approximately 6 to 12 inches apart. Then have your child walk over each hurdle without stepping on or touching them. Once they are ready to progress, have them hold a SandBell above their heads as they repeat the same activity. This is a good way to build strength, coordination, and balance.

3.) 12-Rung Speed Agility Ladder

The speed/agility ladder comes in as our choice for third place in our search for the best pieces of exercise equipment for special needs. Before you get too excited, a speed/agility ladder isn’t something your child has to climb. If you have ever watched football training drills, you’ve probably seen one of these ladders. They resemble a rope ladder but laying on the ground rather than requiring a place to hang them.

With a little bit of research, you will find there are hundreds of different exercises you can try with your family member who is on the autism spectrum, has Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy. If you want a few tips and exercises to get started with, go to YouTube and type speed ladder drills into the search bar. There are plenty of videos filled with great exercises and tips for you and your child to use.

The best exercises are the ones that your son or daughter is going to enjoy and do consistently.  The ones we have selected above work for most of our clients in our private training and local group classes.  If you want more information on our services or different types of exercise equipment for special needs, please contact us here.

Obstacles to Traditional Exercise are Overcome by Adaptive Exercise

Disabilities that cause difficulties at the gym vary wildly, and the root of the problem can be very different from one person to another. While the challenge may be great, we have seen time and time again that adaptive fitness exercises have helped change the lives and increase the quality of life for many — no matter how different they may be.

Adaptive training can benefit individuals who fall into any of these categories:

  • Neurological disorders
  • Neuromuscular disorders
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Physical disabilities
  • Intellectual or Learning Disabilities

The Best Adaptive Fitness Exercises For The Gym

Below, we will list the top 5 adaptive fitness exercises that you can do at the gym. Understandably, some of these exercises might not be possible for every person, so choose the ones that work for you. We recommend working closely with one of our personal trainers for increased effectiveness and safety of each workout.

1. Shoulder Retractions (With or Without Resistance Bands)

Begin this workout in a seated position, either in a chair or your wheelchair, then follow the steps below:

  1. Bring your hip as far back into the chair as you can and sit up straight.
  2. Reach your arms straight out in front of you without locking your elbows with your hands gripping imaginary bike handles.
  3. Pull your elbows back as if you were pulling a bar toward your chest until your elbows are slightly behind your torso.
  4. As you pull your arms back, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold the position for a second before starting the process again.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.

If you have access to resistance bands at your gym, you can wrap them around a pole and use them to perform the same motions described above. If you’re using a wheelchair, be sure to lock the wheelchair into place before beginning.

Depending on the weight, this workout can help increase endurance as well as strength. Use lightweight repetitions (reps) to focus on endurance and slower, heavier, repetitions to focus on strength.

2. Seated Knee Raises

Begin seated in your chair with your hips back in the seat and sitting up straight. While performing this exercise, make sure you are engaging your core by flexing your abdominal muscles. 

Follow these steps:

  1. Put your feet flat on the ground or squarely on your wheelchair’s footplate.
  2. Slowly lift one foot off the ground in front of you as far as you can comfortably do so.
  3. Bend your knee back toward your body as close as you can.
  4. Hold that position for five seconds or as long as you can.
  5. Repeat this exercise ten times for each leg, alternating legs each time.

This workout will help not only with strengthening your leg muscles, but it will also help with your flexibility over time.

3. KettleBell Row Boat

As always, begin seated with your hips back and your back straight. For this exercise, it’s important to take it slow and use a weight that you’re comfortable with. 

  1. Pick up a kettlebell by the handle with both arms and bring it to the middle of your chest.
  2. Bring the kettlebell to your right side and pull it slightly behind you, keeping contact with your ribs.
  3. Come back to the starting center position before bringing the kettlebell slightly to your left side and then pull it behind you.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3. It should look like you are paddling a boat left and right.

As mentioned earlier, make sure you are using an appropriate weight. If you can’t hold a kettlebell, this workout can be used without weight — just make sure you are engaging your core.

4. Chest Squeeze

Begin this workout sitting up straight with your core engaged. Depending on your unique ability and strength level, you can do this workout using a medicine ball, basketball, or even a balloon or stuffed animal.

  1. Bring your medicine ball or another object to the center of your chest.
  2. Squeeze the ball between your hands, making sure to use your chest muscles.
  3. While still squeezing the ball, slowly extend your arms until your arms are almost straight out in front of you.
  4. Slowly pull the ball back to the center of your chest while continuing to squeeze it and repeat 10 times.

It’s important to do this workout with intention and focus on working the chest muscles.

How Does Exercising Benefits the Brain of Individuals with Autism 

Engaging in regular exercise offers profound advantages for the cognitive well-being of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Physical activity has been linked to enhanced cognitive function, improved sensory processing, and increased attention and focus. Exercise promotes the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and endorphins, contributing to mood regulation and stress reduction. For individuals with autism, who may experience challenges in sensory integration and emotional regulation, these neurobiological effects can significantly enhance their overall quality of life. Moreover, structured and sensory-friendly exercise routines can provide a supportive environment for skill development and social interaction, fostering a holistic approach to the well-being of individuals with autism.

Special Strong provides adaptive fitness for children, adolescents, and adults with mental, physical and cognitive challenges. Start your own Special Strong gym franchise today and create a lasting impact on your community.