Fit in fitness for kids with special needs

It would be years before doctors could control Kiley Lyall's severe seizure disorder. Diagnosed at 4 with autism, Kiley remained nonverbal until she turned 7.

Now, at 20, Kiley has a surgically-implanted vagus nerve stimulator that mitigates much of the impact those seizures have.


For decades now, the Western world has turned to yoga as a sort
of navel-gazing exercise, one that enhances the body as much as the

So it’s no wonder that instructors are seeing major benefits in
yoga for children with special needs.

“The beautiful thing about yoga is you can choose how much
information you get,” says Claudia Crowe, an occupational therapist
in Chicago specializing in yoga for children with special needs at

What Crowe means by “information” is the amount of stimulation,
through a variety of yoga poses and breathing techniques, one
allows to their senses.

Imagine, for example, one of yoga’s well-known pose-the tree

Balancing on one leg while pushing the other against it creates
a push-pull relationship. This “isometric” relationship may not be
all that apparent to children with special needs, but it stimulates
their sensory system, improving balance, strength and control.

Today, parents are turning to yoga for children with a range of
special needs, from Down syndrome to autism to undiagnosed
developmental delays.

Crowe says many of her students also have attention deficit

As with other fitness regimens, yoga is tailored on an
individual basis, targeting strengths and weaknesses.

Crowe says evidence of success is clear: Yoga empowers children
with special needs, helping them “trust” their bodies that
oftentimes don’t do what they want them to do.

Beyond the physical benefits, yoga’s introspective side helps
kids “learn personal insight,” she says.

Equine therapy

Partners for Progress in Wauconda uses horseback riding as
physical, emotional and behavioral therapy.

The program has a traveling National Show Team for riders with
disabilities that has competed in Champaign and as far away as
Tulsa and St. Louis. It also has a Special Olympics team.

Horseback riding for special needs children helps build
strength, balance, communication skills and self-esteem.
Emotionally, children learn to connect with horses and communicate
in ways not readily evident with other relationships.

Partners for Progress is located at 23525 W. Milton Road. For
more information, call (847) 226-1300.

Special Recreation Association Network of Illinois

There are 29 special recreation associations across Illinois
that connect children and adults with special needs to a larger
network of local park districts.

These associations also organize their own community-based
programs. Like many other special recreation groups, these
associations offer sports, cultural and arts programs.

The “inclusion” programs give children and adults the chance to
participate in park district programs.

Trained staff is available to assist children and adults with a
variety of activities. Special ramps, for example, might be used
during a bowling outing.

For more information and to find out which association serves
your area, visit

Caring for Kids

This year-round program offers dance, karate, yoga, horseback
riding and scuba diving for children between ages 7-17 with
physical disabilities who are independent in daily living

The classes enhance strength, flexibility and balance, and offer
opportunities for social interaction.

A refundable deposit is required for some of the classes.

To register, visit or call (312) 238-5001.

Caring for Kids also offers other cultural, arts and sports
activities and provides free door-to-door bus transportation.

In addition to the year-round programs, there is a school year
and summer camp program.

“She was probably in a huge fog before that when she was seizing all the time,” says her mother, Kathy Lyall, who moved from Burbank to Bourbonnais four years ago.

And yet, despite the mystery that continues to surround autism today, Kiley and her family forged ahead, emphasizing one part of Kiley’s life they at least could control: Her fitness and nutrition.

That decision was spot on.

For children with special needs, a population at great risk for obesity, staying active and eating well is more than just maintaining a healthy weight.

It’s critical for their overall emotional, behavioral and developmental health.

“Fitness in my book goes to the top of the list,” says Suzanne Gray, who founded Right Fit Sports Fitness Wellness in Willowbrook, a training facility for individuals with special needs. “It has been overlooked.”

Experts agree: Working out and participating in sports goes a long way in helping those children who might otherwise feel cast out by their disabilities.

“Children with special needs can and should be integrated into mainstream physical education environments when possible,” says Ed Thomas, a consultant specializing in physical education. “Physical literacy is a universal goal for all.”

But being inundated with the daily grind of parenting and confronted with the challenges of raising a child with a disability can push fitness goals to the bottom of the priority list.

“The burnout factor is more a risk for parents,” says Bridget O’Connor, executive director of Giant Steps, a therapeutic day school in Lisle for children with autism.

Still, parents have more resources today than ever before.

Professional organizations throughout the Chicagoland area, including Easter Seals, special recreation associations, Special Olympics and Caring for Kids through the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, offer families year-round fitness programs.

On the Internet, parents can access online communities, such as, that connect them to each other and to experts in the field offering solutions to common obstacles.

But, although families might find common ground in the pursuit of fitness goals for their child, there is no standard regimen. That’s why many physical trainers first begin by assessing the child’s abilities and limitations.

Perhaps the child has sensory issues, and is sensitive to activities involving a level of physical contact that may make them uncomfortable.

For others, fine motor skills are the trouble spot.

Whatever the setback, parents should set reasonable goals that can be tracked easily.

Some suggest making a chart the child can mark so that they literally see progress.

Others suggest treats and rewards. But be careful, candy and sweets, the obvious reward, can be a pitfall. If your child responds well to snacks, be sure to pick healthy varieties.

Sometimes rewards come in the least expected places. At Giant Steps, O’Connor says workout machines are affixed with television sets that play only when the machine is engaged.

Structure and routine also are key. But that’s a combination that can kill anyone’s motivation.

“Play for any age is the tool for intervention,” Gray says.

Tali Eingal, an occupational therapist in Skokie and author of a children’s book for those facing fine motor skill limitations, says pretending to act like an animal can get children using their bodies in unexpected and productive ways.

Laura Znajda, who helped develop community-based programs for Easter Seals DuPage and the Fox Valley Region, says aquatic therapy, wall-climbing and martial arts can be fun and engaging ways for children with special needs to isolate and stretch their bodies in new ways to build strength and balance.

Parents should talk to trainers, therapists and teachers to make sure their child’s progress is well charted and goals continue to be refocused as needed. The work needs to continue at home.

Remember, progress comes with great effort and small steps.

Kathy Lyall recalls taking Kiley for a hike and coming upon the Kankakee River. At first, Kiley refused to dip her foot into the water. Just try, her mother urged. She did.

And the water didn’t seem too bad after all.

“By all means, don’t give up,” says Susan Friend of SEASPAR, one of 29 special recreation associations. “If something doesn’t work, it could be the time, it could be the day.”

Dimitrios Kalantzis is a Chicago-area freelance writer.

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