By Becky Sinnott
I’m a late-diagnosed ADHD person (at 40!), with autistic traits, and a mom of 7-year-old neurodivergent (ND) twins, who are also ND.
As a youth, I struggled to be part of many fitness activities through school and with my peers, as I was excluded and bullied out of most team sports. As with most teachers, my physical education (P.E.) teachers treated me like I was intentionally weird. It was terrible for my mental health.
I was still fit and active; it just looked different from a “standard fitness routine.” I spent a lot of time walking, dancing, cycling, or being a “tourist in my own town.” I did a lot of gardening. Activity was part of life.
As an adult, I’ve reflected on how many exercise routines are based on behaviorism: Rewards, punishments, deprivation, gruelling hours, and misery. So I’ve always felt kind of glad that I wasn’t included in sports whose players trained that way. Behaviorism is the theory on which “conversion therapy” and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are based; these reward/punishment systems have been and continue to be used to abuse and manipulate people (but that’s a topic for another day.)
In contrast, the ND community is developing healthy, life-integrative tools, resources, and groups to overcome inertia (task paralysis), avoid fatigue, promote “stacking or scaffolding,” and curate activities around what ND folks actually like to do and are already doing.
Non-exercise Activity Thermogenisis [NEAT] is the increase in overall activity in your daily life rather than focusing on workouts a few times a week, which can be unattainable for many ND people due to various reasons including financial, safety, lack of supports, and infrastructure inaccesibility.
Quite often the inaccessibility impacts the people that need it most, where taking a NEAT approach means it’s accessible to everyone. For example, according to NEAT, dancing (especially in your kitchen) can be as good as jogging when it comes to fitness, and because it’s fun you’re more apt to keep doing it! For further description of NEAT, here’s a High Brow description.
Here are some NEAT examples that help me to integrate fitness into my life:
- Calling a friend (body doubling) and going for a walk is enjoyable, and we can be in two separate cities while doing it.
- Gardening, which is great exercise and good for my mental health.
- Volunteering, at a food bank or a library. Lots of heavy lifting and I’m doing some good for the world.
- Becoming familiar with self-regulation tools and my own needs/accommodations list (I’m building a printable package right now) and putting them into place to structure more activity, which assists me regardless of my physical or mental health for the day.
- Knowing when I need to rest.
It can be challenging for neurotypical people to make exercise more accessible for ND folks. I have a few ideas to consider:
- Team sports can be tough for anyone, but it’s especially the case for some ND people with sensory challenges. What supports could be applied in those situations?
- Many ND people have other hidden disabilities such as motor skill/coordination disorders like dyspraxia, or connective tissue disorders such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. What tools would assist in participation?
- ND people may face additional challenges, such as Language Processing Disorder, that may not make them seem like good team players. How can you provide more time for folks to process in certain environments?
There are many benefits to having Neurodiversity in sport and fitness activities. ND athletes
- are good problem solvers
- work well under pressure (ADHD)
- are geat at seeing patterns and detecting flaws in opposing teams
- help team members to develop new social skills, novel approaches to challenges, and the pride of being in a well rounded group
Many ND people (and people with other disabilities) have spent most of their lives building or finding workarounds and bending “rules” in order to have reasonably functional lives. Their non-linear experiences and creativity has helped the neurotypical and able world to find solutions to various challenges in various places in society.
When a person with a disability requests an accommodation or more accessibility, they need it in order to function, and everyone else benefits, so there’s no good reason not to work with those requests. I’ve noticed as I take my littles through the process of finding sports and other activities, being straightforward with their challenges has opened more doors than it’s closed.
- The ND community is actively building more manageable and positive approaches to fitness and health.
- NEAT is a great starting point in developing life structures help becoming more active for everyone.
- One particular routine isn’t necessary: do what you like and switch up often because variety is the spice of life.
- And when you just can’t, that’s okay: listen to your body and mind and give yourself permission to rest. Rest is a basic need. Self-compassion and un-shaming for when you fall off the wagon will help you get back on sooner.
- Accommodations and accessibility are necessary to some but beneficial to everyone.
- Inclusion in physical activity offers unexpected benefits to everyone.