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MUSC program helps young adults on autism spectrum find their balance

By Aimee Murray | News Center | April 23, 2014


autism spectrum program for young adultsParticipant Coleman Hughes (left) and Chris Fink, a Piece It Together program coordinator, practice their skills in stand up paddleboarding.
 
Photos Provided 

As a mother of a 23-year-old son who falls on the autism spectrum, Katherine Taylor has no doubt that these young adults with autism often fall through the cracks in getting the help they need.

While talking about programs for young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Taylor said there is a true lack of resources.

 
Participants of the pilot session of the Piece It Together Program loved rock climbing. An informational session about the program will be held April 26 at MUSC Wellness Center's auditorium. 

“There’s really nothing for high school aged kids and older. Once they’re out of high school, it’s like ‘good luck’ and there’s nothing,” she said.

Approximately 32 percent of adolescents with autism are obese, the highest percentage of any category of developmental disabilities among adolescents. According to researchers at the CDC and the Health Resources and Services Administration, adolescents with learning and behavioral disabilities are more likely to be obese than adolescents without developmental disabilities.

Aware of these challenges, MUSC’s Wellness Center took its award-winning Healthy Charleston Challenge Program and adapted it to fit this population. Taylor’s son Sam was one of the participants in the pilot Piece It Together program last summer. The third session will start this summer. A free, informational meeting about the program will be held Saturday, April 26 from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Wellness Center on 45 Courtenay Drive in Charleston.

Piece It Together is an exercise and nutrition program, about six to 10 weeks, specifically designed for young adults with ASD. The program was created to help participants from 17 to 24 years of age increase their physical activity, improve their body composition and make healthier food decisions, not to mention broaden their social skills, decrease self-stimulatory behavior and other stereotypical mannerisms associated with ASD.

Janis Newton, interim director of the MUSC Wellness Center said an important mission of the center is to provide exercise and nutrition intervention to foster behavior change as it relates to different disease processes and conditions that affect special groups.

“We’ve taken a look across the community to see what the needs are and obviously there’s a need for overweight and obesity intervention, but it reaches far beyond that. There are little pockets of special population groups that would be incredibly well served by a nutrition and exercise intervention program,” Newton said.

Newton said they found that younger children with ASD have a lot of different resources to help them learn the importance of exercise and nutrition, but high-functioning adolescents and young adults didn’t have as many. To bridge that gap, the team at the Wellness Center created the Piece It Together program.

“We consult all the experts and then make our formula for this lifestyle change fit into whatever participants’ needs are. Those with ASD have special needs we have to pay attention to and design the program around. It’s very different from our drug and alcohol recovery program or our overweight, obesity and chronic disease program,” Newton said.
Taylor recognizes the need to taper the program to participants as proper nutrition, adequate exercise and social interaction can be challenging for those with ASD.

“Exercise is a huge component of treating autism, especially for kids this age because they tend to withdraw socially. When they withdraw socially, they become less physically active which affects their mood,” she said.

 
 Participant Catherine Morrow and Piece It Together Program coordinator Tyler Hunter learn about nutrition in MUSC's Urban Farm.

Jenny Banks’ daughter Hope, who has Down syndrome, also participated in the program last summer. Banks said she especially liked that the program allowed participants the opportunity to get to know one another.  

“Some [participants] who were just really shy were laughing and opening up by the end and that was a neat transformation to see. I think the social component of the program was just as important to us, as parents, as it was to our young adults because it’s such a challenge at this age for our young adults to have the opportunities to socialize,” she said.

Both mothers commended MUSC’s Wellness Center for offering the program.

Taylor said, “Piece It Together is important and necessary because there’s nothing in the community right now for kids who are out of high school.”

Banks echoed Taylor’s sentiments and went on to say, “So many times, people in the community dismiss our young adults as not being able to learn these skills or that the skills aren’t that important to teach to them, but it is critical for their independent living.  The bottom line is, they can learn,” she said.

With the completion of the pilot program last summer, Newton said reactions from participants and parents have been favorable. Banks said the program is truly invaluable and encouraged parents to register their young adult children.

“It is so worth it. It’s such an investment in your young adult’s future in terms of health education and becoming a healthier person. As they become more independent, nutrition and fitness are life skills that are necessary and when you can learn and practice those in an environment with peers and coaches who are encouraging and boosting self-confidence, then it can be life changing for these young adults,” she said.

 
Social interaction that teaches communication skills is an important part of the program. 

Newton and her team are looking forward to working with the next group of Piece It Together participants. Tyler Hunter, one of the program’s coordinators, said he loved working with this group. “My favorite part was getting to spend time with the amazing people who participate in the program. I love getting to know them and find out about all the things that they find interesting.”

As a personal trainer, he also enjoyed sharing ways that they could become healthier. “Everyone knows that we have an obesity problem. The groups that this program targets are at an even greater rick for obesity and chronic diseases than the average population.”

They had an after-party celebration at the end of the program, where he had a chance to get to know the participants outside of the gym. They played various games and had a treasure hunt. “It’s amazing how simple interventions can help,” he said of the positive reactions he received from participants. “It was nice to connect to young adults who may feel isolated and to expose them to ways that can help improve the quality of their lives.”

 

 

 

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