Metro Detroit dad Ron Sandison worries about a harsh reality facing parents raising children with autism: Life expectancy for people with autism is only 55 years old, with higher incidences of cancer, obesity and anxiety, he says.
“We see that there’s a rise of unhealthiness in the United States, and people on the autism spectrum are affected much more highly by it than neurotypicals or people not on the spectrum. So it’s a big concern on my heart,” says Sandison, author, speaker and dad on the autism spectrum who is one of the participants in this year’s virtual Living With Autism Workshop Nov. 6-8, presented by Henry Ford Health and Metro Parent.
And it’s on the hearts of parents, too.
From his extensive research, which he includes in a new upcoming book and shares in talks nationwide, he says there are five things parents can do to help their kids on the spectrum thrive instead of just survive.
“So people on the spectrum right now, a lot of them aren’t thriving. They’re barely surviving. There’s an old saying, you don’t drown by falling in water, you drown by staying in water. So my (new) book throws them that line so they can get out of that water that’s bringing them down by developing those skills, developing those talents and using those gifts to transform their world.”
Five areas needing attention right now
1. A change in diet.
“One of the main reasons that people aren’t living as long is there’s an old saying that my grandparents said, ‘we are what we eat.’ And a lot of the foods people on the autism spectrum eat aren’t as healthy as what everyone else is eating. We eat a lot of chicken nuggets and processed foods,” he says.
Research has determined three out of four people on the spectrum are also obese.
Rather than pizza and nuggets, which kids on the spectrum love, he instead advocates switching to a Mediterranean diet, which features more fish, vegetables and fruits over red meats and processed food.
“All these can help your kid live longer. What’s good about autism is we love a routine. So if you get a routine of a Mediterranean diet and eating healthy, then your child’s going to carry on that routine in their life and in their adulthood, and they’re not going to be part of that statistic of people with autism only living to 55,” he says.
Still, it might not be an easy switch away from chicken nuggets, he agrees. But start with tiny steps. Try homemade nuggets in the fast-food box if that’s your child’s jam, gradually increasing the vegetable content in them from a tiny speck to a majority of it, and changing the way they are “fried,” he recommends.
He also believes in a one-bite rule: “After you get a bite of this, then you’ll get that.” But never, say if you don’t eat this, no TV, because that’s a meltdown waiting to happen, he says.
“But if you do, ‘after you take a bite of this, then you get to have this snack,’ then you’ve got compromise and you’ve got the ability to help the kid change in what they’re eating.
2. More focus on sleep.
Sleep is another factor for people with autism, he says. “One of the things that most people with autism lack is sleep. And what’s interesting is that sleep is the most important thing we can do for our bodies,” Sandison says.
Not only does sleep help the body repair itself, it cuts down on anxiety. Days of only five or six hours of sleep can cause hyperactivity and impulsiveness and, on the extreme end, even psychosis.
Right before bed, turn on freezing water and have your child place their hands under it for 20 seconds, then wipe their wet cold hands all over their face. “That’s the first way we know our world is through our hands. … By putting cold water on your face, it’s going to make your temperature go down two degrees and will make you fall right asleep.”
If the child’s still not tired, encourage them to walk around a bit, then repeat the cold water routine and put them in bed.
In addition, for children with autism, turn off devices at least one hour before bedtime, he says.
3. Add exercise.
“I’m not talking about putting on a Jane Fonda exercise video or sweating to the ‘80s with Richard Simmons. What I’m talking about is this: any activity that gets your heart rate up for 30 minutes or more is going to create serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, the reward system. And a lot of times people with autism, they feel down,” he says.
The best exercise for a child with autism? Anything that will raise their heart rate, including swimming, jogging and even pushups.
“And once you make something a routine it becomes hard to break. People with autism, more than even neurotypical, we’re creatures of habit. So creating those habits are going to increase the lifespan of people with autism,” he says.
4. Combine favorite hobbies with coping skills.
By combining coping skills with a child’s hobby, it can help with anxiety, he says. Encourage them to practice it for an hour. Temple Grandin, the renowned autism advocate and educator, allows herself time for flapping after she does a presentation or gets off an airplane. “That’s her coping skill,” he says.
“Coping skills, that brings your anxiety down because you’re doing something you enjoy. Your mind’s off all the stress of the world.”
5. Focus on experiencing the joy of the moment.
Researchers in one study asked 100 people who are 100 and older how they lived so long, he says. It wasn’t food, exercise, hobbies or sleep. “They experience less anxiety in life and experience the joy of the moment, and that’s key. And people with autism have high anxiety.”
He says one of the things that happens is people with autism miss out on opportunities because their anxiety is so high that they are afraid of social interaction and afraid of missing social clues.
“So living in the moment, having that joy, will experience a longer life.”
Talk with Sandison at the Living With Autism Workshop
“By having your child do these five things – eat healthier, sleep more, exercise, coping skills that are hobbies and finding joy in life, in the simple things, they’re going to live a lot longer and they’re going to be healthier. So they’re going to have less meltdowns and confusion because they’re going to be happier,” he says.
He’ll answer questions Nov. 8, the last day of the three-day virtual workshop, as part of the Q+A session at 2:15 p.m. EST. Tickets are now available.
Sandison is the author of several award-winning books, including “Views from the Spectrum: A Window into Life” and “Faith with Your Neurodivergent Child, A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice, and Biblical Wisdom.”
Watch his website for news on his fabulous upcoming book about transitioning into adulthood. He says it teaches parents everything they need to know to help their children with autism find employment and relationships. On the site, he also offers fresh monthly autism-related content. Reach him directly at email@example.com.
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