Fit for all


The benefits of fitness are well-recognised, yet for individuals with autism and special educational needs, accessing appropriate exercise opportunities remains a challenge, says local resident Julia Morgan

Recent data shows people with disabilities are 12% more likely to be obese, facing heightened health risks. Furthermore, children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in Key Stage 4 are 20% less active than their peers. With approximately 700,000 people in the UK on the autism spectrum and a growing trend in autism diagnosis, there is an urgent need to address this discrepancy.

Despite increasing awareness, many individuals with SEND face barriers to traditional fitness activities. This disparity can be due to a number of reasons, including their health needs or confidence; however, insufficient opportunities with trained professionals who can adapt exercises to their unique needs is undoubtedly a significant barrier. Inclusive and accessible fitness solutions are so vital to address this. It’s not that people with SEND can’t do exercise; it’s that the environment and expertise isn’t available or utilised. Gyms and PE lessons often leave those with SEND wandering and wondering in inaccessible and unsensory-friendly environments.

Exercise offers numerous benefits for people with SEND beyond the physical, as it is also proven to help reduce anxiety, improve mood and increase self-esteem. It can also enhance a range of other aspects, including social interaction, body awareness, motor coordination, communication, academic performance and reducing behaviours such as stimming (repetitive movements or noises). There is no question exercise makes everything better, as one parent said: “It is so rewarding to see my son getting stronger and more coordinated. We also love to see the relationships he is making with the other participants. It’s truly making a big difference.”

Including fitness in the daily routine of individuals with SEND can be transformative. One effective approach is integrating short exercise sessions into the day. Activities such as morning stretches, midday walks or evening dance sessions can be enjoyable. Schools and community centres can play a pivotal role by making exercise accessible through thoughtful adaptation. Sensory-friendly environments with controlled lighting and sound levels can make a difference. Using visual schedules and clear instructions can help individuals understand and follow routines. Additionally, employing specialised instructors can ensure exercises are appropriately modified, safe and accessible.

In conclusion, addressing the fitness inequality gap and the fitness needs of SEND individuals is not just about promoting health; it’s about ensuring inclusivity and equality. By creating accessible and supportive environments, we can help everyone to reap the numerous benefits of exercise, leading to a healthier, truly inclusive society.

Julia is a qualified autism exercise specialist, SENCo and personal trainer. For more information and advice, email FitForAll.UK@hotmail.com