Paradoxically, it is cheaper and easier to get outdoor exercise which is better and more relaxing for children and teens having difficulties with more organized after school programs. But it may not be easy – at first – because it involves a change in lifestyle. The main ingredient for success is not money but will power. The following steps require fortitude and determination not to give in on the part of the parents, but the rewards will be well worth it for everyone.
- Assess the amount of time each person in the family spends weekly watching television and movies, on the computer (including time during work or school) and using other electronic devices by using time logs. Have each person in the family keep a personal log for a week.
- Also log any time spent exercising, either in an organized activity or during activities such as walking to work or school.
- If asked why the family is doing this activity, explain you are doing a survey to improve the overall health of the family in order to prevent illnesses taking time away from working and having fun.
- Hold a meeting at the end of the week and share the information in the logs. Then ask each person to think about how he or she might achieve a balance between time spent on exercise and on the sedentary activities. For example, if they spend ten hours a week on the computer, and five hours watching movies, how could they spend an equal amount of time exercising? Would some people rather decrease the time on movies? (Probably not!) Then how might they increase the time they spend being active? Activities can range from starting a dog-walking business to creating a family garden.
- While brainstorming together, suggest that at least half of the exercise time should be spent outdoors, even during the winter, to promote better health and relaxation.
- Have each person make a list of how he or she would prefer to balance time spent on exercise and on sedentary activities. Ask them to rank the list from first to last choice. Collect the lists and thank them for their help in completing the survey.
- During the following week, the parent(s), and perhaps teenagers, should do research on which of the exercise activities are most enjoyable. Allow your teens and children to come up with solutions instead of the parents dictating them.
- Hold a second meeting and let each person know how the parent(s) are prepared to support more balanced activities. Perhaps the parent is willing to ask a neighbor or friend to loan a dog to start the dog-walking business. Ask a relative to spend two hours a week keeping an eye on children playing outdoors while the parent is still at work. Consider paying teenagers for extra yard work.
- While maintaining compassionate understanding for how long it may take for family members to change their habits, keep a gentle pressure on the family to improve their health through increasing outdoor exercise. Setting a good example is the best way to do this. A reward for achieving equal balance might work well in some families. Increased family time or spending time exercising together might work well in other families. Planning a vacation with special outdoor activities at the beach or in the mountains may also be a good long-term incentive.
- Though parents may have more hours to balance with exercise, especially if they have a job that involves time working at the computer, it is important to remember that it may be equally hard for children and teens with autism to give up computer time. They will respect parents who make the extra effort in their own lives. After all, parents are great role models to show their children it is possible to make a positive change. They may also discover they enjoy time outdoors together rather than being in front of screens.
Children and teenagers, even adults, who spend two or three hours a day outdoors engaging in natural exercise have an easier time falling asleep for several reasons. Of course, they are more tired physically, so their bodies naturally find sleep easier at the end of the day.
Less obvious is the traditional wisdom that fresh air is good for children and adults. Scientists are beginning to concur. The negative ions given off by moving water, including the ocean, waterfalls and fast streams, turn out to be natural antidepressants. Getting enough sunshine is important; people who don’t get enough sunshine may suffer from a depressed condition called “seasonal affective disorder” or “SAD”. People who are less depressed and healthier often sleep better. Gardening turns out to be the very best form of exercise to prevent osteoporosis, because it strengthens muscle groups and promotes strong bones.
The third reason may be the least obvious and most important. People must have adequate time for mental relaxation during the day. The processes of reflecting, absorbing new ideas, synthesizing new information, resolving problems, exploring solutions, and creating, particularly while engaged in physical activity provides an outlet for any overflow of energy or emotion. Having enough time for mental relaxation during the day as well as a physical outlet ensures the mind is ready for sleep at bedtime.
If people, including children and teens, do not have time for mental relaxation, bedtime is the first time that day where the mind can unwind. Often, chaotic mental activity ensues. The unconscious mind tries to compress all those mental activities of absorbing, synthesizing, resolving, exploring, and creating into the time right before sleep, while the conscious mind struggles to sleep. Furthermore, the brain is already tired, which makes this struggle even harder to control or end.
Time in our secret garden each day is essential for sleep as well as physical health. And restful sleep is the key to inner renewal and re-supplying our energy. We wake from natural sleep ready to approach the new day with fresh energy and a more positive attitude about ourselves and the world.
Organizing a restful bedroom, keeping to a regular schedule, and keeping noise and sensory distraction to a minimum are all important – these are discussed in the article “Rest for Children and Teens with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome: Sleep II”. But finding the secret garden, the center of our creative, reflective spirit, and its connection to the inspiration of the world around us is the most important step towards improvement in our health and the health of our children, including those with autism.
“Yes,” hurried on Colin. “It was the garden that did it – and Mary and Dickon and the creatures-and the Magic. No one knows. We kept it to tell you when you came. I’m well, I can beat Mary in a race. I’m going to be an athlete.”
He said it all so like a healthy boy–his face flushed, his worlds tumbling over each other in his eagerness–that Mr. Craven’s soul shook with unbelieving joy. -The Secret Garden., by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. 1911. The Secret Garden. New York, New York: J.B. Lippincott Company.