Ausnew Home Care | Exercise and good nutrition can be hard for people with autism, but expert help can overcome some of the obstacles

Exercise and good nutrition can be hard for people with autism, but expert help can overcome some of the obstacles

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It's hard enough for most people to keep fit and healthy, but those of us with autism have a host of other obstacles to overcome.

Problems with motor skills, including balance and coordination, can all add to the challenges of getting and keeping fit. 

According to figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2017-18, Australian children aged 5-14 who had a disability were more likely to be overweight or obese (30 per cent) than those without a disability (24 per cent).

The first large-scale study in 2020, conducted by King's College London, showed autistic adults are more likely to be considered an "unhealthy" weight — underweight, overweight and obese — than they are to be in the healthy weight category.

As a person with autism, I've continually struggled with my weight and with staying motivated to exercise.

Nick doing wall squats while holding weights
Nick McAllister says people with autism have a host of other obstacles to overcome when it comes to exercise.()

Despite engaging the services of numerous personal trainers, ultimately they haven't been able to motivate me, and I've felt a sense of frustration about not seeing results.

Communication is key

My current exercise physiologist Jake Nimmo is trying to work with me on my coordination and balance, as well as keeping me motivated during our sessions.

He's already noticed some beneficial changes, telling me my aerobic capacity had improved greatly since I began exercising, and that my energy levels were far greater. 

Nick McAllister laughing in gym
Nick McAllister says his work with trainer Jake Nimmo is having a positive impact.()

According to Jake, my strength levels have also increased and my movement patterns are much more efficient. 

Good communication with me has been essential, and I've talked with Jake about barriers to exercise, as well as what I do and don't enjoy.

We discuss topics that take my mind off the harder exercises, and sometimes Jake performs these exercises with me. 

These strategies help me associate exercise with fun, rather than viewing it as hard and negative. 

A young man uses the fitness tool battle ropes while a trainer guides him. They are outside in a park and wear fitness attire.
A fitness trainer encourages a participant during a program for people with disability.()

Building confidence through exercise

Strong Saturdays, a programme in Perth's northern suburbs, is specifically aimed at supporting people with disabilities to build confidence through health and fitness.

A group of young men in fitness attire run up a flight of stairs outdoors.
Roman Wright (right) takes part in a fitness program for people with disability.()

Participants work-out using outdoor exercise equipment and stairs at a beachside location.

Roman Wright, who is autistic, regularly attends Strong Saturdays to get stronger, healthier and feel more confident.

A young man in red glasses uses battle ropes during a fitness class outdoors. He is wearing an orange tee and blue shorts.
Roman Wright says he feels healthier and more confident after taking part in the program.()

"When I first started, I feared the stairs and feared falling. Now I'm more confident," he said.

Roman said he looked forward to Strong Saturdays as he enjoyed catching up with his friends, exercising together and sharing a healthy lunch afterwards.

Nine men, dressed in fitness attire cross their arms and pose. They are on a deck outside. It is overcast.
Trainers (far left and right) pose with some of the fitness class participants.()

Cooking classes tailored to suit

Food relief charity Foodbank knows the importance of diet and nutrition in staying healthy, particularly for people with a disability.

Chief executive officer Kate O'Hara said the organisation hoped to empower people to enable them to choose and prepare healthy food.

Headshot of a woman in the Foodbank distribution centre.
Kata O'Hara says people living with disabilities are more likely to experience food insecurity.()

"People with disability are more likely to experience barriers that contribute to poorer health outcomes such as obesity, diabetes, poor oral health when compared to non-disabled people," she said.

"Having a disability makes households more likely to experience food insecurity, and these education and cooking programs tackle these issues hands on.

"Unfortunately, there are less opportunities for people with disability to address the health inequities because mainstream health education programs and resources are not tailored to their needs."

Josef Bandera regularly attends Foodbank's cooking program, and is full of praise for it.

"My favourite thing that I've cooked here was the pizza," he said.

A young man wearing a white t-shirt and a purple apron.
Josef Bandera has nothing but praise for Foodbank's cooking program. ()

"It's taught me how to work with different people and different food and I've become more confident in the kitchen."

Kate said another participant had begun volunteering, preparing healthy food for her local football team after completing the program.

"Anecdotally we have seen many benefits to our participants, people have developed lots of social connections and made new friends, socialising together outside of the program sessions," she said.

"The impacts of the program have been amazing."

Confidence key in the kitchen

Dietitian Themis Chryssidis said the more confident people were in the kitchen, the more likely they were to prepare nutritious meals.

A man wearing a navy blazer over a grey t-shirt smiles for the camera.
Themis Chryssidis says buying pre-cut vegetables can help improve nutrition for people with a disability. ()

"Individuals with a disability may face physical challenges in the kitchen making preparing food difficult, however, disability is not just physical, with intellectual disabilities also posing major barriers for some people," he said.

"Some people living with a disability find some tasks more difficult than others [but] with additional kitchen support, some handy utensils, and smart purchases in the supermarket such as pre-chopped vegetables, individuals living with a disability can still prepare delicious and nutritious meals."

Professor Andrew Whitehouse from the Telethon Kids Institute said there were likely to be many contributing factors as to why obesity might be more common for those with autism.

A middle-aged caucasian man with brown hair and black glasses, wearing a white button-down shirt, smiles at the camera.
Andrew Whitehouse is a professor of autism research and works at the Telethon Kids Institute.()

"For example, we think that the selective diets may play a role as well as certain medications which may have a weight gain as a side effect," he said.

An autistic person with selective diet will only eat foods they consider to be safe or acceptable, avoiding foods with a particular taste, texture, or colour.

Some may dread the thought of certain foods and cannot bear to touch or even be near them.

"In a small number of cases, there may be other health and medical conditions that increase links with obesity," he said.

As for me, since engaging Jake I've noticed my motivation levels have increased and I actively look forward to my exercise session.

Although I still like to indulge in a carbonara and garlic bread as no-one can be good all the time.


Source: ABC

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