In this sun-filled country, sport activities are considered an important part of the Australian culture. We all know that being inactive is a risk factor for obesity (just think about all those post-COVID 19 lockdown weight gains), cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and bone loss.
Being active is even more important for children with special needs. Through sport activities, children with special needs can develop their gross motor skills, strength, flexibility and coordination. If the activity is in a group format, studies show children can be more motivated to engage, move and participate. Sport activity can eventually be a good alternative to prolong physiotherapy from childhood to adolescence, even into adulthood. Why? It is commonly seen that physiotherapy is simply abandoned due to boredom, costs, lack of time or shift of priority in different life stages. However, sport activities give an enjoyable alternative, and children would experience normal sports enjoyment and a sense of mastery like their healthy siblings and peers. Families also feel more ‘normal’ as their children with special needs can take part in enjoyable activities like their other children. Remember the six F-words I have talked about in my last blog? Sport activities have allowed the child to achieve at least 3 of them- Fitness, Fun and Friends.
Unfortunately, the reality is not that rosy. Research evidence have shown that young people aged 5 to 18 years with cerebral palsy participated in 13% to 53% less habitual physical activity than their healthy peers. Levels of activity regardless their ability level and age were approximately 30% lower than the suggested guidelines and sedentary times were twice the maximum recommended amount. These make children with special needs more vulnerable to develop secondary health problems due to inactivity.
There are lots of reasons contributing to the inactivity in children with special needs. The most obvious one is the competency of the child with special needs. Other possible barriers include but not limited to:
- Inadequate accessibility in the school yard so sometimes students with special needs are sent to the library or canteen during recesses or physical education lessons for their classmates
- Lack of modifications in the physical education lessons and students with special needs are sent to the library or sitting on the side bench during the class.
- Use of wheelchair inside the classroom or school yard is preferred due to space limitation and safety even though the student can walk with their walking aid.
- Lack of organised support from the school, volunteer coach or parents to provide an equal opportunity for students with special needs, e.g. swimming lessons or school outings.
- Adapted sport programmes exist but may not in all suburbs and it is difficult for the parents to find, especially when the after school or summer recreational activities are left up to the families.
- Limited availability of community fitness programmes may be due to safety, equipment, accessibility, transportation, costs, attitudes of people towards disabilities, and policies and procedures of the sport venues.
- Lack of instructors who know about different types of special needs.
In the above-mentioned barriers, your physiotherapist and/or occupational therapist may be able to help you out, e.g., discussing the abilities and inabilities of your child with the physical education teacher at your child’s school and suggest how the teacher may adapt their lesson so that your child may participate as other students in the class.