Trampolines helping people with autism reach new heights

SEATTLE -- Newton Miller, 7, has a peculiar habit when he's feeling anxious or bored: he squats on the floor and leaps into the air like a frog. The activity can be hazardous when he jumps off the bay window in his living room or while running errands with his mother. He once crashed into a shopper while he was "frogging" at the grocery store.

Newton's mother Deirdre believes her son's desire to jump is a consequence of his autism. And, she's found an appropriate place for him to jump as much as he wants without hurting himself or others: a trampoline.

Autism spectrum disorder is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

The Lakeside Center for Autism in Issaquah uses a trampoline, donated by Springfree Trampoline, to help children with autism. The trampoline is used for speech, occupational, physical and behavioral therapies.

Erica Bigler, an occupational therapist at Lakeside, said students who use the trampoline show increased muscle and bone strength and cardio endurance. They have improved balance and kinesthetic awareness.

Bigler works with a 5-year-old boy who came to the center with poor core strength. He would trip and fall often during therapy sessions until he started jumping on the trampoline.

"You can see quite a difference in how he can control his body more effectively," Bigler said.

The same student had poor social skills, like many other children with autism. But, Bigler said when kids jump together on a trampoline they share an enjoyable activity and develop increased body awareness around their peers.

"He typically prefers isolated play, but when he's on the trampoline he's having such a good time," Bigler said. "It's one of the only places I see him interact with a peer and sustain attention on a game."

Speech therapists at Lakeside use the trampoline as a motivational tool, allowing children to play on the trampoline if they speak or repeat a word.

"He'll do amazing things for the trampoline," Deirdre said of Newton. Teachers also use the trampoline to teach students how to follow directions by playing games, such as "Simon Says."

Children with autism tend to learn more effectively when they are able to reinforce their intellectual development with physical movements, so staff members at Lakeside often write words on the trampoline with chalk and ask students to jump from one word to another to form a sentence.

"It's amazing what kids on that spectrum can do on a trampoline that they might not have been able to without that sensory input," Bigler said. "You see kids going from disengaged and non-communicative to making eye contact and being more aware of what's going on."

While Deirdre said Newton is often under-stimulated, the trampoline offers him an outlet to expel his energy and has improved his concentration.

"When he's [frogging] at Lakeside they can move it to an appropriate environment," she said. "We're not denying it to him but giving him an appropriate framework."

But, kids at the Lakeside Center for Autism are not the only ones reporting life-changing results; adults living with autism in the community are also benefitting from trampolines.

Anabelle Listic, a 28-year-old Seattle woman with autism has two trampolines at home and uses them daily to process information and cope with anxiety.

"My moments of true clarity always happen when I'm on my trampoline," Listic said. "It's like meditation to me."

When Listic temporarily moved to Oregon years ago, she brought a trampoline with her instead of a bed.

"I don't ever want to have to live without jumping on a trampoline," she said. "When I'm on a trampoline everything feels effortless and makes sense and feels okay."

Listic even took her trampoline on a light rail train once. A friend had invited her to the opening of his art exhibit but Listic was feeling anxious about the event. So, she brought a 48-inch trampoline on the light rail and into the gallery.

"I was either going to bring it with me or not go," Listic said. "It was incredibly helpful."

She said just sitting or lying on a trampoline can help people with autism.

"Sometimes I just lie on my trampoline and pound my fists on it. I'm moving that muscle and it's self-regulating and soothing. That tiny bit of rebounding feels safe and comfortable to me."

You can watch Listic on her trampoline in this video she made for others with autism:

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