Autism in America
Autism spectrum disorder is a range of conditions characterized by the unique differences observed in children. Those with autism often experience challenges with social skills, speech, nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. However, they also exhibit specific strengths within a child's own set of skills. In fact, there is evidence of a genetic link between the risk factors for both autism and intelligence.
According to 2018 data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder. That accounts for about one in 37 boys and one in 151 girls in the United States.
As a "spectrum disorder," children with autism experience a wide range of mild, moderate or severe symptoms. Experts recognize various types of autism, each one determined by a combination of genetic and environmental influences. While it is possible for some to grow out of autism symptoms, it is also possible for children to have thriving and happy lives whether they grow out of symptoms or not.
Exercise, Play, and Autism
Children need to play, especially outdoors. The exercise, fresh air, and sunshine promote healthy growth and development mentally, physically and emotionally. Going to the park and experiencing recess at daycare or school are both important activities for socializing children. Playing outdoors also provides opportunities for exercise, which prevents childhood obesity and its many health risks.
When a child grows up with autism, they may have problems with outdoor playtime that other children do not experience. The outdoors is home to a variety of sensory experiences, as too much of which can overwhelm those with particular autism symptoms. Kids with difficulties communicating and socializing often experience conflict when introduced to collaborative play. Instead of engaging with other kids, many children with autism choose to retreat into their own interests and company.
One way to help a child with autism adjust to the social nature of outdoor play is by facilitating it more in a safe and familiar environment. Your home’s backyard can be a sanctuary where your child can run, play, and experience all the benefits of the outdoors. Over time, their familiarization with outdoor play can make it easier to transition to more social environments including parks and playgrounds.
Optimizing Your Backyard for Safe and Fun Play
Setting up your backyard for your child doesn’t have to be an intricate or expensive endeavor. Much of what you can do involves things you likely have on hand. For many kids, it helps to have a “safe space” where they can escape sensory overload and compose themselves. A playhouse, homemade fort, or a backyard tent are all great options for safe spaces. It’s good to have this space be outdoors to encourage your child to take a break rather than giving up and removing themselves from outdoor play altogether.
To keep your child safe, construct a fence around your backyard that prohibits offsite wandering. Building a fence can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor, but there are more cost-friendly options available for those who need them. While it’s important to have some sort of barrier, you don’t necessarily need a 7-foot oak privacy fence to keep your child safe in the backyard.
Having small garden in the backyard is a great way to introduce your child to new sensations while teaching them about life cycles and responsibility. Gardening is also an anxiety-reducing activity that many children enjoy. Kids that have problems with touching unknown objects in a new environment can be fitted with their own gardening gloves that protect their hands while giving them a comfort totem that encourages the activity.
A backyard swing set is another wonderful feature to provide for your child with autism. Swinging can be therapeutic for children who feel out of control of their movement while providing exercise and stress-release. You can find sets with additional features you think your child may enjoy - and benefit from - including hanging bars, climbing walls and sandboxes.
Autism affects millions of children around the country in many ways. To encourage outdoor play, it helps to start in the safe environment of the backyard. Create a safe zone for your child and set boundaries with a fence. Features including gardens and swing sets give them something to do outside while helping them grow more comfortable so they can transition to playgrounds and reap the social as well as physical, mental and emotional benefits of outdoor playtime.
Rob Woods, co-creator of fixitdads.com