Healthy Kids     K-12     After School     Enrichment Guide    

Physical activity and the special needs child

Exercise for all

Many parents take their child’s ability to exercise and participate in physical activities for granted. For some children, being active can be difficult because of physical or emotional limitations. But as challenging as it may be, physical activity is crucial to children with disabilities.

“The particular benefits vary because there are so many different needs out there,” says Cheryl Curtis, an occupational therapist who works with special needs children at the George Robinson Center in Middletown. “For example, wheelchair-bound children need weight bearing activity in order to build muscle tone. Many times we’ll do wheelbarrow exercises with them. Children with Downs syndrome typically have low tone and exercise can help build postural control. Children on the autism spectrum have difficulty with sensory processing and exercise can help with that.”
The George Robinson Center is a part of the AHRC of Orange County, an organization that supports and advocates for people of all ages with unique abilities and challenges.

Looking for something to do after school?


Greater needs

Serena Marrero, director of development for Abilities First of Poughkeepsie, a non-profit agency that works with people with disabilities, says children with special needs have greater need for physical activity than the typical child. “Children who are physically disabled are restricted physically and if they do not exercise their usable muscles, they’ll have a tendency toward obesity. Physical therapy may help these children become more ambulatory. Children with Aspergers, autism or attention deficit disorder often have the uncontrollable need to move and physical activity can help them to learn to do so appropriately.”

Abilities First has both a pre-school and school for children with special needs, both of which incorporate a number of physical activities throughout the school day. The school is home to the Sensory Adventure Gym. The equipment is designed to allow children to grow accustomed to the sensory process and includes structures such as an enveloping apparatus designed for children who do not liked to be touched and a swing with a platform instead of a seat to help children develop a sense of equilibrium. Students of the school use the gym under a therapist’s supervision.

While use of Abilities First’s Sensory Adventure Gym is limited to students, there are other ways to introduce children with special needs to physical activities.
Accessible, accommodating play-grounds can be helpful in stimulating physical as well as social skills. Abilities First is currently fundraising for a fully accessible playground on campus. According to the staff, playground activity allows for the social, communication, emotional and cognitive skills of children to be exercised, as well as their motor skills. Play with peers who are accepting influences friendships and the social and emotional growth of all children.

Be green!

There are public playgrounds adapted for children with handicaps located at Beacon Memorial Park on Fishkill Ave. in Beacon and Bowdoin Park in Wappingers Falls. In Orange County, there is an accessible playground called “Sally’s Dream” within Thomas Bull Memorial Park in Montgomery. Because there is such a wide variety of ability among these children, there is no one perfect formula for a physical regimen. Activities such as therapeutic horseback riding, drumming, and yoga can all be helpful in nurturing physical motion in children with special needs.

Another option: personal training

LaGrangeville resident Vincent Ricotta is a physically active teen despite having some very real challenges in his life. The 18 year old senior at Arlington High School was born blind and with cerebral palsy, a disorder that impedes motor skills. The effects of cerebral palsy can run the gamut from mild to severe. In Vincent’s case, the disease affects his legs, making it difficult to walk. He wears ankle foot orthodics (leg braces) in order to support his legs.Three years ago, Vincent underwent major surgery because the cerebral palsy was causing one leg to turn in, resulting in a great deal of pain in the hip area. Doctors cut through his thigh and rotated the leg out. After the surgery, Vincent began physical therapy and started his first year of high school in a wheelchair.

A year ago, he began working out twice a week with personal trainer Ron Paglia at Gold’s Gym in LaGrangeville. Under Paglia’s guidance, Vincent’s strength gradually increased to the point where he was lifting 400 times more weight than when he started. “I don’t think people realize the tremendous gains that can be had in a physical gymnasium. A personal trainer concentrates on increasing strength in the entire body, not just the area of complaint. Muscle tone is a pre-requisite for balance and strength,” explains Paglia, who has worked with a number of special needs clients throughout the years and believes that the earlier a physical fitness regimen is introduced, the better. Paglia estimates that the ideal age to introduce a physical training regimen is around ten to twelve years old, though he has had clients as young as four. “Special populations need a trainer that can respond to their specific needs. I am patient, I do research on their condition, come up with an individualized plan and set very small, very short-term goals to accommodate my clients with special needs.”

More than Baseball and Ballet

“It’s been amazing,” says Vincent’s mother, Janet Ricotta. “Ron is really terrific and he’s helped Vincent a lot. Vincent stands up much taller, is much stronger and doesn’t crouch towards the end of the school day as he used to. He’s overcome a lot of obstacles in his life. To get around with cerebral palsy and blindness is a challenge in and of itself, but he does it. He does very well school-wise and is in many AP classes. He really is an inspiration”

“Vincent is wonderful,” says Paglia. “He’s got a great attitude and works very hard at what he does. Seeing the big gains that these kids make is intrinsically rewarding for me."

Courtney Bonfante is a mom and writer living in New Windsor.

Click here to learn more about how one organization is helping children with special needs.