Lateral movement and autism

Eric Chessen, M.S.

When discussing sports or, more importantly, preparing for life skills and daily challenges, it is necessary to address all facets of movement. Basically, we move in all sorts of directions throughout the day, and the more we can practice or train the proper way to perform these actions, the less likelihood of injury, greater ability to perform complex movements, and more joy of movement we are able to develop. Forgive my Andy Rooney approach here, but I think joy of movement is something that children have lost over the last decade. I can recall playing outside, running around, tumbling, falling, getting back up, and climbing around for hours. I do not see too many young individuals playing outside anymore, and when I see adolescents and teenagers playing pickup games of basketball or football, the hours spent in front of the television or playing video games is clearly evident. Within the world of autism, I notice a consistent trend of poor lifestyle accommodations (television, sitting for long periods of time, little physical activity) being combined with the movement inhibition and difficulties that many young individuals with autism experience.

We would not expect an infant to be able to perform basic mathematics at an early age, then not be exposed to any type of math for several years, and then expect them to be able to perform complex equations years later. Yet this is exactly what occurs when children are denied proper physical education and then expected to play sports. Sports are highly evolved activities requiring very specific and complicated movement patterns. To expect a young individual to be able to play a sport with any amount of skill when they do not have the basic physical foundations necessary is unfair and potentially dangerous. Having said that, I will try to steer this article around to the point of being fun.

One of the most commonly overlooked physical skills is changing direction. When we run, stop, and move in a different direction in sports or during daily life, we depend on lateral motion. Lateral motion refers to side-to-side movement. Being able to stop in mid-sprint, turn right or left, and begin running again is one of the most difficult and important skills a human body can perform. Do we use lateral motion on a daily basis? Sure. Getting in and out of a car is lateral motion. Standing up from behind a desk is lateral motion. Stepping up or down from a curb can be a lateral motion.

Being able to move fluidly from side to side is important in creating balanced strength and coordination for any individual. Within the young autism population, where individuals are often inhibited from performing certain movements or shy away from too much range of motion, practicing lateral movement is essential. Many gait issues can be attributed to muscular imbalances. Gait, or walking, is not only determined by anterior and posterior muscle groups, but by the lateral structures as well (known as abductors and adductors). Enough terminology. ‘Tis exercise time.

There are a few exercises that are my “go-to’s” for enhancing lateral movement, particularly when the goal is to enhance the quality of gait for the athlete. Lateral steps using floor markers are a great way not only to incorporate a fundamental movement with single or multiple participants, but to also incorporate visual and academic targets. Lining up floor markers comprised of different shapes or colors can enhance listening skills and teach an athlete to differentiate between stimuli. Stepping left to the purple star, and stepping right to the blue star offers the opportunity to perform a lateral movement and identify a color.

Lateral steps can be performed with anywhere from two to any reasonable amount of floor markers. Once the athlete is capable of moving left and right with a significant amount of accuracy and stability, other movement patterns (such as ducking under hurdles or catching a ball while stepping) can be incorporated.

I also employ lateral crawling exercises quite often. Crawling is, for most human beings, the first complex exercise we perform. Crawling incorporates tactile processing, hip mobility, visual training, and shoulder stability. This is a veritable stew of physiological importance. As such, I like crawling exercises. Crawling can be progressed into more challenging exercises such as bear walk, floor hops from all fours, and tumbling. Lateral crawling can be a challenge even for some adults. Assume a quadruped (knees and palms on floor) position with the spine neutral (flat, not arched). Pick up the left hand and left knee and step them over a few inches, then follow with the right hand and knee. Now go to the right side. Try it first in the quadruped position and as the athlete begins to master the movement, have them perform the exercise with hands and feet (rather than knees) on the floor.

Lateral movement is one of those little things that we do every day but pay little mind to, particularly whether we are performing activities correctly or compensating for poor body mechanics. By practicing and teaching movement correctly, we can create a situation where “corrective” exercise is unnecessary. It is difficult to pick out movement disruptions if they are not overwhelmingly apparent or have already caused injury. Do heels come up off the floor when the knees bend, is the individual inhibited or slow to engage in certain movements or activities? These types of questions can serve as a basic checklist for what movement patterns need to be addressed. Finally, joy of movement does exist and can be developed. It is difficult to describe how much fun movement can be to those who have not really moved in some time. Want an instant refresher course? Pick up a light medicine ball or find a good set of monkey bars, and find at least 5 different ways to move around with/on them. Remember, exercise is something we do. Fitness is something we live.

Courtesy of Spectrum Publications

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