Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Role of Strength Training for Parents of Autistic Kids

by Terry Brown | May 13, 2024

silhouette of parent and child

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 ways:

1. Increased physical capacity: 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 exhausted.

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

4. General health and well-being: 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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