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.
- Australian children with a disability are more likely to be overweight
- People with a disability face unique challenges when it comes to fitness
- Experts have shared their tips on exercise and nutrition
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.