The Role of Strength Training for Parents of Autistic Kids

The Role of Strength Training for Parents of Autistic Kids

by Terry Brown | May 13, 2024

My eldest son is 6 years old, non-verbal and has autism spectrum
disorder (ASD) and sensory processing disorder. Some days are great,
some days are bad, but most days are challenging.

With any challenging
lifestyle, your overall work capacity is important. If Work = Force x
Distance, an obvious solution to increase Work capacity would be to
increase the amount of Force you can actually produce.

Strength training is
the best way to achieve this. Think of every interaction you have
with the physical world around you as a submaximal expression of your
ability to produce force. Every physical task you undertake involves
a varying percentage of your overall available force output. When we
increase the overall available output, we reduce the percentage of
that overall output required to perform our daily tasks. What does
this mean for you?

Let’s take as a
real-world example when your child was a baby, and you could carry him around without any issue, putting him into the car seat or
carrying him up the stairs wasn’t a problem. As your child gets
older, he is growing and getting heavier, your ability to perform
the tasks mentioned above reduces. The overall amount of work
required to perform these tasks has increased but your overall
capacity has not.

Now for most kids this
isn’t a concern because as they grow older, they don’t need you
to do these tasks for them anymore – they learn to walk up the
stairs by themselves, they can climb in and out of their own car
seats etc. This isn’t always the case when it comes to children
with additional needs. My son is learning and improving all the time,
however the rate at which he acquires these skills is slower than the
average child. He still needs assistance with a lot of basic daily
tasks, such as climbing stairs and getting in and out of his car
seat. If you’re in a similar position and you’re finding things
more and more difficult as your child grows, the acquisition of more
strength will certainly help improve the situation.

I know you’re probably
thinking “if only I had the time.” This doesn’t have to be
all-consuming. I know from my own experience that carving out 2-3
hours over the course of a week is sufficient time to gain all the
strength you’ll ever need.

A typical day for us
will start anywhere between 3am and 4:30am. We get up, get dressed,
get fed and get going. If he’s having a difficult morning, we will
hit the road and go for a drive or a walk depending on the weather.
The peace of these early morning excursions really helps to calm him.
The whole world seems to be asleep except us. In the beginning I
wasn’t too happy about being up and about when all I really wanted
was sleep, but I have come to appreciate and enjoy this part of the
day. Now you add school runs, your work commitments, and other
obligations into the mix and there really doesn’t seem be much time
left. That being said, there are 168 hours in the week, and 2 to 3
hours is only 1 to 2 percent of that time. Do what you can to get it
done as this time can be the most productive of the week.

If your child is
anything like mine, you know routine is critical. My son
thrives on the predictability, and he is far more regulated, happy,
and calm when we can keep to a relatively repetitive timetable. The
same can be said for strength training. Gradually increasing loads on
the same lifts, the ones that incorporate the most muscle mass over
the longest effective range of motion, the squat, deadlift, press and
bench press, over an extended period of time, adding just a little
weight each time you train them is the most efficient and effective
way to train for strength improvement.

My own strength
training began at roughly the same time my son was born. I wanted to
continue training, but needed a more streamlined process than the
train-everyday approach I had been taking. I used the basic principle
above as the basis of my initial training plans and whilst only
allocating 2-3 hours a week I have made more progress than my
previous 20 years of messing around in the gym.

This progress has
enabled me to improve day-to-day life with my son in the following

1. Increased physical
This is very useful when you have a 6-year-old who may just
refuse to walk regardless of how far from home you may be. Just
simply pick him up and make a game of it.

2. Increased energy: As
my everyday interactions with the world around me require a smaller
percentage of my overall strength, I generally have more energy (when
I do finally get him to sleep) to pour into other pursuits. It’s
nice to sit down with my wife at the end of the day and not be

3. Stress management: I
find this simple, hard, yet effective method of training is great for
reducing my overall stress.

4. General health and
When you train for strength, your body becomes more
robust and resilient.

5. Mental Toughness:
Inevitably when those particularly tough days come around and my son
is just completely unregulated and suffering, the mental toughness I
have acquired through training helps me to stay calm, patient and
capable when the chaos engulfs our household.

Based on the above I
would highly recommend strength training to any Autism parents out
there. It’s a great use of your time that will benefit both you and
your family. As your child continues to grow and challenges change, a
good base of strength will leave you feeling as prepared as possible
for whatever may come. Anybody who has a demanding and stressful
lifestyle will benefit from regular strength training. In all cases
an increase in strength is an increase in capacity.

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