Currently, one in 68 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of developmental disabilities that can result in social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Autistic children often have great difficulty communicating and interacting with others. Additionally, many autistic children feel overwhelmed by sensory input, which can make them uncomfortable in everyday situations.
A couple of years ago, Achilles International, a nonprofit organization which provides physical development opportunities for adults and children with various disabilities, created a running program for autistic kids. The program, which requires three months of training, helps the children prepare for a mainstream five-mile race.
So, how do autistic children benefit from this running program? It turns out that there are quite a few ways.
About half of autistic children are overweight, which puts them at risk for other complications, such as diabetes and heart disease. Running provides them with much-needed exercise to keep their bodies healthy and fit. In addition to the physical benefits of running, there are cognitive and emotional benefits as well. Achilles International notes that many children seem to have improved interpersonal connections after participating in their program, particularly with family members and peers. Additionally, they note, they've witnessed a reduction in both aggressive and repetitive behaviors among their participants.
Katie Sweeney, whose 16-year-old son Dusty was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, agrees that the benefits of Achilles International's running program are clear:
"I think the routine of it, the mental benefits, have been amazing – better than any drug...and I think the endorphins have done wonders."
Of course, the evidence of the benefits of running for autistic children is strictly anecdotal at this point. To help confirm the evidence, the Cigna Foundation awarded Achilles International with a grant to support research on how running impacts the mental and physical development of autistic children. The hope is that the results of this research will show that running is an important addition to already existing therapies and will ultimately lead to an improved quality of life for autistic children.
For more information on job opportunities working with autistic or special needs children, please contact us.
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