Autism And Staying Active As A Family

*Originally written by our Director of Communications and Outreach, Jennifer Salamon, for the health and wellness blog Hello Portobellos, we thought this was an important sentiment to share with our families as well!

It is common knowledge among special needs parents that you have to live forever. Not to sound morbid, but the unknowns about who will take care of your child once you are gone is one of the biggest stressors we have. Since becoming a vampire is not a real option, the next best thing is taking a good, hard look at your health and fitness.

Like most people I know, I am well aware of what I should do to stay healthy, but actually putting it into practice is another story. My fitness journey has been up and down but didn’t really come into focus until well after R’s autism diagnosis. He was diagnosed at 2. We mobilized to get him the help he needed. Once he started kindergarten, I was able to take a little bit of a step back and see the changes I needed to make in myself to be an even better, healthier mom.

R was an active little kid. He is still a very active teenager. I started thinking about ways to increase my energy, in an attempt to keep up with him. Around this time, a lot of friends and family seemed to be getting into running. I thought to myself, I might be able to do that. I could definitely do a 5k fun run. So, I downloaded a couch to 5k app and went at it. I joined a gym to have access to a treadmill. I also joined a run club for accountability. At the time, I didn’t consider myself a fitness novice. I had played tennis in high school, and summer softball as a kid and teenager, but running was a different animal. It was never my favorite, but I figured it was time to mix it up.

What I noticed early on about running, and really loved, was that so much of it revolved around helping charities. Every 5k seems to have a cause connected to it. Every distance you can participate in during Pittsburgh Marathon weekend has a charity team you can run for. With a couple of 5k’s under my belt, I decided to run the marathon relay for a charity. To my delight, my husband said he would run a leg as well. We made it a family affair by signing R up for 1-mile kids run. We had so much fun! We loved the experience of going to the expo, the start and finish line energy, and of course, the medals. R especially loved his medal. One of his stims (a “stim” is a self-stimulating repetitive behavior) is play with ribbons or string, and medals are perfect for that.  Needless to say, we were hooked, and running for a charity every year has become our thing (Learn more about running for Autism Connection of PA here)

Through the years, we’ve tried to get R involved in group sports through special needs leagues. He played baseball for a few summers and soccer in the fall. Nothing really stuck with him. He’s not a team sports lover. He much prefers to be on his own. So running, and later swimming has been his go-to activities.

R and I ran/walked several 1 milers and 5k’s in the following years.  We found a great community of friends and supporters within the run club I belonged to. They were always cheering the loudest for R at races, and some became important parts of our village.  As much as I loved running with others, it also soon became a way for me to recharge solo. I would often go on runs alone to clear my head. Sometimes the best way to try to figure out an issue you’re having, whether it’s child/work/school/whatever-related, is to lace up your shoes, run, and think. Running became a vital mental health activity, along with my physical health.

We continued our family fitness even after the arrival of R’s little brother O. I ran during the pregnancy. My first baby purchase was a jogging stroller. R would run alongside the stroller, and we didn’t miss a beat.  As O got older, he wanted to be like his big brother and run with us. Just like R, we started him with fun runs, 1-mile runs, and then his first 5k this past spring.

Along with changing literally everything about our daily lives, the Covid pandemic also changed our fitness routines. Large group runs were canceled, so that took away my weekend social training activity. Gyms were also closed, which impacted my husband more than myself, but was still an adjustment. With the kids and me home A LOT more, I found new ways to entertain them during the day. We started walking a daily mile through the neighborhood. I found scavenger hunts we could do on these walks too, to keep them more engaged. My husband, who is a nurse and not home as much, would use his days off to take the kids on hikes. He also, piece by piece, assembled a gym in our garage.

Our new garage gym led to a whole new way for us to be together as a family. My husband would show me how to use the equipment, and we came up with workouts to do. We jokingly started calling them “gym dates”. Since we couldn’t go out for real dates, those were our times together to just hang out.

As I found myself getting burned out on the home treadmill, I started using the garage gym more, not just on date night. I also found a kindred spirit in a friend who had stopped running to weight lift more. She would send me information and encouraged me to sign up for a program with a very supportive online community. To my surprise and delight, I still found that my time in the gym was what I needed to clear my head, the way running had. So it wasn’t so much running was everything, it was any type of exercise/fitness that made me feel better and my mind clearer.

The kids got into too. O wanted to do everything his daddy was doing. We give him a 2 ½ or 5-pound weight so he really feels like he’s in on it. R is learning how to properly use the equipment, with appropriate weights. Numerous studies have linked having autism with an increased risk of obesity. R has so many doctors and issues to contend with, helping him love exercise and moving will hopefully give us one last thing to worry about, medically, for him.

Now do I consider myself a super fit person yet? No. But it is important that I’m always trying to improve and set a good example for my children. The most imperative thing to me is to have happy, healthy kids. It is such a fun bonus that they love learning from my and my husband’s example and we can do all of this as a family.