Posts Tagged ‘motor skills’

Exercises can help children with autism improve focus, balance, motor skills

March 18, 2011

Exercises and yoga poses can help children with autism and other developmental disabilities gain confidence, develop better coordination, and improve motor skills.

Improvements in balance and motor skills often go hand in hand with progress made in cognitive function and academic achievement.  Exercising and playing sports also gets more oxygen to the brain, helps kids stay in shape, improves sleep habits, and can improve relaxation and decrease aggressive behaviors.

For children with autism, copying a facilitator’s actions can lead to improvements in the ability to imitate, which is often lacking in kids on the spectrum.

To read the rest of my article on, click here.

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Play date activities for children with autism spectrum disorders

January 28, 2011

Participating in play dates can help children with autism gain invaluable social skills.  The best way for children on the autism spectrum to learn how to manage their emotions and make friends is to practice those skills over and over with their peers.

A sample list of play date activities designed to improve social-emotional, play, cognitive, and motor skills is below.  The description of ideas is just a guide.  The list of potential games, sports, and other activities is endless.  The list below includes activities that in some cases require a minimum level of education and communication.

Activities should be customized to the interests and needs of students.  A list of ten or so major activities can be given to kids who should have some leeway to take turns choosing activities.  In a two-hour play date, usually about six activities can be accomplished.

To read the rest of my article on, click here.


Bernard Rimland and Autism

September 27, 2009

Sometimes I buy used books and resell them at

The other day I bought an interesting book:  “Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implication for a Neural Theory of Behavior,” written by Bernard Rimland and published in 1964.  Someone bought it as soon as I put it on amazon, so I just had a chance to briefly skim through it.

Rimland was one of the first researchers to state that autism was a neurological disorder.  He also founded the Autism Research Institute and the Autism Society of America.  Rimland was one of the first researchers to advocate biomedical treatments that have improved the symptoms of countless children and adults with autism.  He also served as the chief technical advisor on the movie “Rain Man.”

According to Wikipedia, Rimland’s book “is credited by many with changing the prevailing view of autism, in the field of psychiatry, from an emotional illness -widely thought to be caused by refrigerator mothers – to the current recognition that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder.”

I picked out a few interesting quotes from the book.

“Many writers consider the child’s hostility or indifference to his parents as evidence that the parents are guilty of causing the disease…It would seem more reasonable to regard the child’s actions as ‘symptoms,’ not as symptoms of etiology.  In the case of the adult who insists that he is being persecuted by the Communists, one does not take his statements at face value but only as an indication that he is ill.”

So Rimland was saying that doctors who blamed parents for their children’s autism were wrong, just as those who blamed parents for their children’s mental illnesses were wrong.  Believe it or not, as recently as the 1970s much of the medical establishment believed that autism as well as mental illnesses were the result of the coldness of the mother, which obviously is anything but the case.  But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that this view was debunked, so Rimland, writing in the early 1960s, was ahead of his time.

It makes you wonder what else the medical establishment is wrong about, and it goes to show that you shouldn’t just blindly follow it.   If you’re a parent of a child with autism now, imagine how bad it must have been back then if doctors had told you that your child’s autism was your fault.

Another quote from the book talked about how rare autism was at the time:  “The extreme rarity of the disease is attested to by the fact that Kanner himself who is reported to have seen over 20,000 disturbed children in his more than thirty years of psychiatric practice, had by 1958 seen fewer than 150 cases of early infantile autism.  This includes children brought to him for diagnosis from all parts of the world.”

We know now, 45 years after the publication of this book, that there is an autism epidemic that is attributable to much more than an expansion of the diagnostic criteria.  I myself have met hundreds of children with severe autism in the Washington, DC area, and I’m sure I’ve only met a tiny fraction of all the kids with severe autism in this area.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 150 children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Finally, Rimland said, “Most writers regard the children as quite agile and graceful…the children who do use their hands are remarkably dexterous.”  He describes their “fast and graceful movements” and “excellent motor coordination.”  In fact, a majority of children with autism now have very poor motor skills and coordination, so that shows that at least in this respect the disorder has worsened, and some type of trigger has resulted in children with autism having worse motor skills than before.

Use Play Dates to Foster Social Skills in Children with Autism

August 22, 2009

The biggest disappointment I’ve had in working with children with autism is the fact that many of their parents are so hypocritical when it comes to play dates.

Play dates are structured play sessions between two or more children.  They are done because kids with autism have a very hard time learning the social skills that come naturally to most children.  Play dates are very beneficial because children learn skills such as taking turns, sharing, communicating both verbally and through body language, and playing sports and board games.  They learn spontaneous play, which in turn improves the ability to learn.  They learn how to think on the fly and practice imaginative play, which helps with kids who only think concretely and not abstractly.  They develop a sense of humor, which does the same thing.  In fact, spontaneous and imaginative play can help kids generalize skills across different people and environments (the inability to generalize is a huge problem in autism.  Kids may be able to learn something at a certain desk with a certain instructor, but may not be able to do the same thing elsewhere with someone else).  Play dates (along with sports, exercise, and other motor skill practice) can help make kids improve their cognitive learning.

Anyway, the problem is that many parents only want to have their children play with kids who are “higher functioning” than their own kids.  Yet they refuse to allow kids who they believe are “lower functioning” to play with their kids for fear that their kids might not learn as much or might pick up bad habits.  In short, the parents are “stuck up” about their kids.

Parents:  you are not making a major commitment for the future by trying out a play date.  Try it, and if you don’t think it’s a good fit you don’t have to continue for a long period of time, but be open-minded.  Sometimes I think you’re more autistic than your children.  You only want to do the same things over and over and refuse to try anything new.   When I see this attitude, it makes me so ready to move onto the next career, whatever that will be.

I’ve heard parents say, “Johnny doesn’t want (or need) friends.  He has his brother.”  Be careful of saying, “Johnny like this but he doesn’t like that.”  So you’ve decided at this young age what he likes and doesn’t like for the rest of his life?  Why don’t you want him to have play dates?  Do you want him all for yourself?  Is it codependency?  Is it that there are so many other more important things, that you want to get those done first?  Is it because you are afraid of failure, and a child should only do something if it is 100% successful, otherwise it’s not worth trying?  Is it because you’re lazy?  Are you afraid the child might cry?  Is it because you just want to hand over big checks to therapists and then let them handle everything so you can be done with it?  Is your child better than other kids?  Whatever it is, it’s not right.

I’ve even known of a case in which a parent didn’t want his child to play with a particular child who was perceived to be lower functioning, even though his child clearly wanted to play with this child and was very distraught about it.  Try explaining that to the child.

The level of hypocrisy is amazing.  I’ve seen parents almost cry because typical children don’t want to play with their kids.  Then when their children take a leap forward, they themselves refuse to have their children play with kids who may be at a slightly lower level than them in certain areas.

Here’s an example of how a child who may have slightly higher skills in certain areas can still benefit from playing with children who may have slightly lower skills.  Child A sees that Child B gets upset easily.  Child A can learn to comfort Child B and say, “I hope you feel better.”  Then Child A can learn empathy.  Child A can also learn leadership skills.  And how about having fun?  You focus on things that both of them can do well, and maybe even more of the activities that the lower functioning child can do well.

I don’t mean to be too negative.  I even once met a parent who was neither a hypocrite about play dates, nor held her kids back from having them.  The reason I write this is that I have facilitated many play dates – over 100 – and the vast majority have worked out great, and the few parts of play dates that haven’t worked out great still help prepare kids for life’s ups and downs.

Be open to trying new things and breaking out of the structure the way things currently are.  Otherwise, you’re just going to get the same results you’ve always gotten.  Reading a social story is nice.  Participating in a social story is even better.

Note – I know the above may sound harsh.  Most of the parents I’ve met do a good job of setting up play dates for their kids, and most of them do want to see their kids have fun. I know of at least one parent for whom all I did for a year for her child was facilitate play dates, and on top of that, she had an additional playgroup.  Very impressive.

Sports for Children with Autism

July 23, 2009

There was a good article in the Washington Post yesterday about a boy with autism who swims on a local swim team.  Kids with autism can benefit a lot from playing sports, as can their neurotypical peers from having them on the teams.  Swimming is one of the better sports for kids with autism because it is both individual, without a lot of complex requirements, yet still social in that kids are still part of a team.

Participating in sports can help kids with autism and other disabilities in many ways.  Sports give kids with disabilities confidence, improve socialization, get more oxygen to the brain, improve coordination, help them stay in shape, help them sleep better, improve cognitive function by improving proprioception (the body’s sense of where it is in space), and reduce inappropriate behaviors.  Improvements in fine and gross motor skills often go hand in hand with improvements in academic and cognitive function.  Certain exercises can relax kids and even help align both hemispheres of the brain.  And of course, sports are also a lot of fun.

Kids with autism often like swimming, trampoline, and swinging.  This gives us clues on what kind of sensory input they need.  What is the best sport for children with autism?  I tried to answer the question a couple of years ago at  I think the real answer is, “Whatever they like best.”  In order to find out whatever they like best, we need to get rid of our preconceived notions and expose them to as many athletic opportunities as possible.  I learned this after coaching a child in soccer a few years ago who ultimately ended up playing hockey.  I never would have thought hockey would be a great sport for kids with autism because of the need to skate and handle a stick simultaneously, but it turns out that it can be great, and it just goes to show that we shouldn’t put limitations on anyone.

Sports can be more effective for kids with disabilities when they are mixed in with academics and social skills.  You can do a half hour of sports followed by a half hour of schoolwork, followed by a half hour of social skills.  Each area helps the child generalize and build on the previous one. Sometimes people make the mistake, though well intentioned, of segregating each activity to the point where each one is facilitated by different specialists who, worst-case scenario, don’t coordinate and communicate with each other.  In any case, each activity should transition and relate to the others, and ideally, you can do some academic work while moving at the same time.  One example is to play catch or jump on a trampoline while answering questions.  This helps with sensory integration.  Yoga is also great for balance and relaxation, and deep breathing and meditation exercises can help improve the attention spans of children and reduce unwanted behaviors at the same time.

For a high functioning child, you can have him or her play in a league with typical peers, preferably a couple of years younger than the child who has autism.  The child has a “shadow” who helps integrate him or her with the other children athletically and socially.  I’ve facilitated in this way, and also coached Special Olympics soccer, and both can be great depending on the situation.  See for ideas on drills.  It’s the same concept as in school – sometimes it’s best for kids to be mainstreamed into the typical school environment, and other times it’s best for them to be in a self-contained (special education) classroom, and often the best of both worlds is a combination of both, depending on the situation.

Exercises are great, but it’s best to do ones that are meaningful in the context of sports, so that children can eventually be part of a team, or at least play in impromptu games after school, or even use imagination to make up their own games.  It’s how kids learn best – not just sitting at a desk doing work, but getting along with others, being spontaneous, thinking on the fly.

A lot of people are familiar with the amazing story of Jason McElwain, an autistic teenager who scored 6 three-point baskets for his high school team a few years ago.  This type of success doesn’t happen a lot, but it would never happen if too many limitations are put on children who have autism and other disabilities who want to play sports.

I’d like to add one other thing.  While parents shouldn’t push their kids too hard into sports, they should expose them to sports and in some cases kids may need a nudge.  You wouldn’t tell your child who says, “I don’t want to do math” that it’s ok to avoid homework just because he or she doesn’t want to do it.  Math is necessary and good for kids.  Sports may be good for them as well, so don’t be so quick to say, “He doesn’t want to do it.”  In any case, it’s better to try something new that to do the same things over and over.  Sometimes I think parents are more autistic than the kids themselves – not willing to try anything new, just doing the same old x number of hours of therapy sitting at a desk in a vacuum.  And playing sports is certainly better than sitting inside and watching TV.

Ok, that reminds me, I have one other thing to add.  Today, a lot of kids play video games, and one video game that can be beneficial is the Nintendo Wii, which has simulated sports that can create an interest in real sports (tennis, bowling, baseball), as well as fitness (yoga, exercises, and running).

For people in the Bethesda/Montgomery County, MD/Washington, DC areas, there are several sports-related opportunities for children with autism.

  • Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN, is a free, volunteer-run sports program for kids with disabilities.  There is a waiting list that was up to a year long the last time I checked, but they don’t turn anyone away unless they are over 21.  KEEN has a general sports program, a swim program, a music program, and a Teen Club for higher functioning children to do outings.  KEEN has chapters in Bethesda, Washington, DC, and several more across the country, and even a few in England, where KEEN began.
  • Sports Plus, based in Germantown, MD, has sports leagues for kids with high functioning autism (
  • Fitness for Health in Rockville has some excellent equipment and specializes in one on one training sessions.  See
  • Special Olympics provides sports for not only children but also adults with disabilities:  The Special Olympics national website is
  • There are a few youth hockey programs in the area such as the Montgomery Cheetahs (

Elsewhere, check with your local schools and governments, or search the web to see what is out there. and Autism

May 22, 2009

This table shows what types of therapies I do for children with autism compared with some other providers.  I currently have spots available for toddlers and kindergarteners for playdates and other activities during the day.  See for more information.

  Area of Instruction or Therapeutic Intervention
  Cognitive Skills and Academics using ABA, VBA, or other techniques Playdate Facilitation Understanding and Handling Emotions Sports, Exercise, Motor Skills, Coordination Trips in the Community
Coach Mike Yes – Great Results Yes Yes Yes Yes
Most Autism Therapy Programs Yes – Good results No No No No

ABA = Applied Behavior Analysis.  VBA = Verbal Behavior Analysis

Mike Frandsen