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Of course, everyone should make wellness a goal in their lives. But as the CDC notes factors such as diet, exercise, and sleep can play an especially profound role in the lives of people with autism. Not only does managing these factors play a role in treating autism, but often doing so requires more planning, structure, and routine for an autistic person.
If you are an adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or the parent or caregiver of a child with ASD, this guide can help. It provides resources, articles, tips and other advice to help you manage autism through healthy living.
Diet plays an important role in managing ASD. For one, people with autism are especially susceptible to gastrointestinal problems. In fact, Autism Speaks notes that children with autism are “more than 3.5 times more likely to suffer chronic diarrhea or constipation than are their normally developing peers.” Carefully choosing the right foods is essential. Here are a few tips:
Go gluten-free. A gluten-free, casein-free diet has been shown to work well for autistic children with GI problems. AutismSpeaks.org presents this Q&A with a pediatrician, who answers common questions about the diet. The organization also provides these other resources with more information:
- FDA Standards for Gluten-Free Labeled Products
- In Autism: The Importance of the Gut
- Unraveling Autism’s Gluten Mystery
- How Helpful is the Casein-Gluten-Free Diet?
Watch for signs of eating disorders. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism explains that children with ASD are especially susceptible to eating disorders. If a child shows signs of a disorder, behavioral intervention can be put in place after medical issues have been addressed.
Understand the connection between allergies and autism. In addition to gluten, About.com notes that people with autism may experience a worsening of their symptoms when they eat eggs, tomatoes, eggplant, avocado, red peppers, soy, and corn. However, the article points out that allergy tests for these foods are usually negative.
Eat “close to the earth.” WebMD.com explains that because many young people with autism have GI issues they may not get the vitamins and nutrients they need to stay physically healthy. In the article, Dr. Brian Udell recommends “eating close to the earth,” which will eliminate preservatives, additives, and other artificial ingredients from the diet. In order to ensure you get the vitamins and nutrients you need Dr. Udell notes, that it may also be necessary to take supplements.
Work in more omega 3 fats. In addition to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, autism can also cause a lack of essential fats. FoodfortheBrain.org recommends that people with ASD get a “higher intake of essential fats.” It also provides an eating Action Plan for people with autism.
Keep an eye on portion control. As AutismBeacon.com explains, people with autism may not have the same appreciation for the cause and effect of unhealthy eating as others. It offers suggestions, such as telling social stories and using checklists, to help teach children with autism more about how to make healthy eating choices.
Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative cites a study that found that “30 percent of children with autism are overweight or obese.” In addition to a healthy diet, physical activity plays an important role in helping autistic children and adults avoid becoming obese. Here are a few benefits and tips for how to become more physically active.
Decreases destructive behavior. The Autism Research Institute pinpoints “strenuous exercise” as an effective way to reduce certain common behaviors associated with autism, such as “hyperactivity, aggression, self-injury, and destructiveness.”
Improves socialization. For children with autism, organized sports can play an important role in helping them form relationships with other children. As this article explains, kids with ASD often have trouble socializing. Organized sports offer a chance to be around other children without the pressure of having to constantly verbally communicate. And of course, it’s a great way to get in physical activity, too!
Decreases repetitive behaviors. This article presents information from many interesting studies on the effects of physical exercise on people with autism. One benefit it points out is that exercise, especially in young children with autism, can help decrease the repetitive behaviors that are common with ASD.
How To Become More Active
Remember, variety is key. When it comes to exercising, one of the hardest parts of maintaining a routine is staying motivated. SFGate.com suggests one way autistic teens and adults can stick to their fitness regimen is to try a variety of activities. Mix things up with activities such as rock climbing, yoga, dancing, and more.
Try swimming. Swimming is a great way to exercise, and it has proven physical and mental health benefits. As a study from the University of Northern Iowa shows, it can also improve an autistic child’s self esteem. And because the National Autism Association has named drowning as a leading cause of death for autistic children, it is also a vital skill for them to learn.
Know what sports work best for autistic children. University of Utah Health Care provides this easy-to-understand infographic, which presents five sports that work well for autistic children. They include swimming, biking, track and field, horseback riding, and gymnastics.
Getting plenty of rest plays a significant role in managing autism. Unfortunately, people with ASD, especially children, are often prone to sleep disorders. The National Autistic Society cites many possible causes, including sensory issues, melatonin issues, difficulty going to sleep, waking frequently, and more. Here are a few tips for people with ASD on how to improve sleep:
Get educated. Understanding the sleep issues people with ASD may encounter is the first step to correcting them. That’s the lesson from this HealthDay.com article, which cites a study that found that educating parents about sleep improved sleep in their autistic children.
Relax right before bed. WebMD.com recommends working time into your nightly schedule to relax right before bed. For parents of children with autism, this might mean reading them a book or listening to soft music.
Know that melatonin may help. The National Institute of Mental Health’s “A Parent’s Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder” notes that taking the hormone melatonin may help with sleep problems. Of course, you should always consult a doctor before taking melatonin yourself or giving it to your child.
Use a visual schedule. Autistic children often do better when structure and routine are in place. This guide for parents whose autistic children have sleep problems recommends using a visual schedule so that they’ll know the same steps will be taken each night. The guide includes an example of a visual schedule.
Try a sleeping bag. These sleep tips from the Autism Research Institute notes that because a sleeping bag leads to “pressure touch and neutral warmth (the body’s heat retained),” it can be calming and in turn helps autistic children sleep better.
Minimize noise. Of course, most people will have trouble sleeping in a noisy environment, but as HealthCentral.com points out autistic children are especially sensitive to noise. It recommends using a white noise machine to help block out other sounds that might disturb your child’s ability to sleep.