We do not often think about the gross motor skill of sitting in general, let alone its importance for children with autism. For example, most individuals would often sit cross-legged on the ground during preschool or on chairs in primary school. They would sit for varied periods of time and listen to the teachers as they taught the classes. Most of us did what we were instructed to do, that is, to sit quietly and patiently, but we did not actually realize the benefits of sitting tolerance at the time.
When it comes to children with autism, it is of vital importance to teach them how to sit appropriately, to develop this expected behavior in different social settings, and to encourage sitting for an extended period of time. Once the child is able to master this skill at home, this can be generalized to other settings, such as school (MacDonald et al. 2013). The child would be required to have the endurance to sit upright on a chair listening to the teacher instruct during school hours. For the time being, these children may adopt a “commandment” mindset, that is, he or she must develop sitting tolerance simply because they are told to. However, the training of sitting tolerance has many benefits in our lives, and especially in the lives of these children.
Maintaining a sitting position for a period of time allows children to develop their postural stability. In fact, many children with autism have shown a weakness in the core muscles of their stomach and back areas, while others have shown evidence of poor body awareness (Memari et al. 2014). These may eventually result in poor posture, wriggling, and discomfort when sitting on a chair next to a table for an extended period of time. By putting more emphasis on developing sitting tolerance, and providing needed support at an earlier age, we can help children with autism understand the importance of sitting properly and to correct their sitting posture for longer sitting durations.
From society’s point of view, sitting is an expected behavior that is visible in many social settings. For example, we are expected to sit in a respectful manner during a work meeting. By doing so, one’s manner of sitting can demonstrate an expression of respect toward others, and their interest and participation in a given topic of conversation. Actions such as fidgeting, moving around, or walking away could be examples of unexpected behaviors during a work meeting, if no prior excuse or reasoning is provided. Another example would be sitting face-to-face on a first date with a potential romantic partner. In these situations, we would want to give a memorable first impression during the conversation, and how we sit and comport ourselves can be a weighty factor of success or failure. A slightly more comedic situation would be sitting through a haircut session. If the client is unable to stay still and keeps moving their head, the hair dresser would have a lot of difficulty in cutting the client’s hair, which might lead to an accident where the razor could shave off more hair than was intended. In essence, sitting tolerance is a social skill that is required in numerous settings, and is therefore crucial for children with ASD to learn!
While sitting is a significantly important life skill, it is important to understand that children with autism may feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar settings and changes in their routine. They may find it difficult to understand social interactions and/or to communicate their needs and emotions in an effective manner. Sensory stimuli, such as lights, touch, and noise are often experienced in a dental setting, and can be accompanied with physical withdrawal, aggressive behaviors, and vocal outbursts. As a result, these children will most likely exhibit more inattention and distractibility than typically developing children. So, improving sitting tolerance can also assist in helping to learn self regulatory behavior (Menezes, 2012). Whenever they need to stop themselves fidgeting, they will be practicing comfortable sitting postures through the work of gluteal muscles and learning to tamp their own impulsivity. By doing so, it is one way for them to learn how to calm down and regulate their emotions in the long run.
In order to further aid smoother transitions from familiar routines to unknown circumstances, sitting tolerance should be introduced at the earliest opportunity. Once a child masters the concept of sitting (on the floor, on a chair, etc.), it would lead to generalization to other settings such as toilet training, eating meals, sitting at the table, and riding in vehicles.
Most of us might hope that our kids would be the “ideal” or “perfect” kid, but the end goal is not to have a lifeless robot that can sit still for an indefinite period of time. On the other hand, we do not want our children to fall on the opposite extreme of the spectrum, with constant swaying, tapping, rocking, or having an overflow of energy waiting to burst. It must be noted that it is absolutely acceptable to fidget, move, or turn a bit here and there, and to take mini-breaks as needed. We must ensure that our children understand the intentions and expected behaviors of sitting in various social settings and the importance of training much-needed sitting tolerance starting at a younger age.
Written By: Hannah Ng
MacDonald, M., Lord, C., & Ulrich, D. (2013). The relationship of
motor skills and adaptive behavior skills in young children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7(11), 1383-1390. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2013.07.020
Memari, A. H., Ghanouni, P., Shayestehfar, M., & Ghaheri, B. (2014).
Postural control impairments in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A critical review of current literature. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 5(3), e22963. doi:10.5812/asjsm.22963
Menezes, C. B., Pereira, M. G., & Bizarro, L. (2012). Sitting and silent
meditation as a strategy to study emotion regulation. Psychology & Neuroscience, 5(1), 27-36. doi:10.3922/j.psns.2012.1.05