According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children with disabilities are 38% more likely to suffer from obesity than children without. The most common reasons cited that contribute to the obesity of children with special needs are:
- Cost: healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy foods
- Portions: the portion size of convenience and fast foods are larger than what is recommended
- Processed foods: more likely to be consumed
- Carbonated drinks: soda pop and other sweetened drinks are consumed frequently
- Sedentary lifestyle: a decrease in a physically active lifestyle
- Electronic screens: an increase in using video games, computers, and other electronic devices to satisfy recreational needs.
In many instances, children with disabilities are overlooked with regards to the planning and implementation of physical fitness activities in school settings. Such exclusion hinders the experiences for children with special needs. Often, a lack of understanding of the children's abilities, and/or the fear that such children could suffer an injury, are the reasons many administrators exclude or limit children with differing abilities.
For the same reasons all children benefit from physical activity, children with special needs can benefit in the following ways:
- Greater confidence
- Decreased body fat
Additionally, specific benefits for children with disabilities include:
- Improving the inclusion of community life
- Controlling the progress of certain chronic diseases
- Increasing independence
There are many barriers to participation in physical activities. Among these barriers include a lack of social support, a lack of expertise among staff, lack of physician support, socioeconomic factors, as well as safety concerns.
The first step towards overcoming the barriers to better physical fitness activities is to understand the varying needs of those children with special needs. Children who have reduced mobility—such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, paraplegia, and dwarfism—can’t move safely in some sports. Time spent planning how these children can navigate crowded spaces with their walkers, wheelchairs, or crutches while playing with other children, is of particular importance.
Likewise, special care is necessary when planning activities for students that have other special needs, like medical conditions (asthma, diabetes, cancer), sensory-related conditions (autism, ADHD, deafness, blindness, etc.), and cognitive conditions, such as learning disabilities or Down syndrome.
Children without disabilities and peer helpers are invaluable assets in helping children with disabilities to feel included in physical activities. They can offer encouragement and assistance with some of the challenges the children may face.
Children with disabilities may benefit from physical activities when some simple adaptations are made to accommodate their abilities.
- Modifications to the speed or duration of physical activities
- Modifications to equipment, such as using smaller or lighter balls
- Implementation of rule-adjustment as an incentive to include children of differing abilities
- Non-competitive sports or physical activities
Educating all students about the challenges these children face can help everyone to create ways to include children of differing abilities in physical activities.
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