Fitness in special needs classrooms is that overlooked aspect of growth and development that just about everyone would agree is “important,” but few take the time to explore.

For students with autism and other developmental disorders, physical fitness in special needs classrooms is often forgotten, but can make the difference between good outcomes and great ones.

Here are the Top 5 reasons why special educators should be incorporate fitness in special needs classrooms:

5) Physical fitness programs can enhance physical deficits.

Many individuals with (Autism Spectrum Disorder) ASD, also have physical deficits such as low muscle tone, poor spatial awareness, and limited endurance. Fitness in special needs classrooms will improve muscle tone, poor spatial awareness, and limited endurance.

Individualized and group fitness in special needs classrooms that focus on the Big 5 movements (Pushing, Pulling, Rotation, Squatting, and Locomotion) and incorporate such activities as bear walks, hops, medicine ball throws, Sandbell presses, and overhead walks will go a long way to improve problem areas.

4) Increasing Cognitive Ability

fitness in special needs classrooms

There is an ever-growing stack of research that suggests a strong connection between physical activity levels and optimal cognitive performance, particularly short-term memory.

Equally important for students with ASD is emotional regulation.

Both can be enhanced through fitness in special needs classrooms and having your students get up and move throughout the day.

Whether they are working on academics or daily living skills, exercise activities such as light medicine ball throws, jumps, and Sandbell slams can help performance during the day.

3) Socialization Opportunities

fitness in special needs classrooms

When we think of goals for students with autism, one of the biggest is successful social interaction.

Whether it is initiating simple contact or limiting a conversation about different types of skyscrapers to 36 minutes or less, educators are constantly looking to optimize interaction skills.

Physical fitness in special needs classrooms is a virtually untapped resource for setting up great social opportunities.

From having a Sandbell catch with two or three partners, to taking turns frog-hopping across the room, fitness activities can be as socially simple or complex as needed.

2) Independent Leisure Options

Many of my athletes with autism used to wander aimlessly, engage in stereotypical (“stimming”) repetitive behaviors, or watch the same 8 seconds of a Disney clip on YouTube all afternoon if provided no other alternative.

Now, for most students with autism, fitness in special needs classrooms and the activities which go with it are not going to be an immediate replacement to those more passive pursuits.

It’s hard to compete with Sebastian from The Little Mermaid. I know.

Been there (and am still there on occasion).

Over time and with the right program, fitness in special needs classrooms can be a healthy, functional alternative to otherwise repetitive and none-too-beneficial behaviors.

Many of my athletes have, over time, discovered some aspect of fitness they truly enjoy, from swinging a kettlebell to throwing a medicine ball as hard as possible to swinging big ropes.

Students with autism often need more time to adjust and become comfortable with new activities or tasks. Taking fitness a minute (or 1-2 exercises at a time) can help make it a “want to” instead of a “have to.”

1) Healthy Living over a Lifetime

fitness in special needs classroomsAn educator wants to build skills that last a lifetime and enhance experience.

Fitness in special needs classrooms can do just that and optimize many other abilities in the process.

By being active every day indoors and out, students with autism are engaged in a healthy lifestyle.

If we consider the qualities that make life as good as possible, physical health is certainly in the top tier. Being physically active with an individualized fitness program has too many proactive and preventative benefits to ignore.

Eric Chessen, M.S., is the Founder of Autism Fitness and a Autism Expert.

He is also the creator of the PAC Profile Assessment Toolbox and numerous E-Books and workshops. More information is available at and you can reach Eric to discuss how to include fitness in special needs classrooms.