Sometimes fitness is as simple as playing. That's the approach Right Fit Sport Fitness Wellness, Willowbrook, IL, has taken with its Raise the Bar program for autistic children.

“Raise the Bar does not diagnose [autism], but [it] uses play as the tool to provide the necessary exercise to bridge barriers, enhance life and overcome obstacles for youth with autism spectrum disorders,” says Suzanne Gray, owner of Right Fit. “Autistic kids may have poor social and communication skills, but we ask, ‘How do we make them enjoy their hour here and not just make it like school again?’”

In the Raise the Bar program, trained staff members lead the children through basic exercises and sequential games. The program also includes summer camps and clinics, some in conjunction with area autism associations. The activities are all designed to encourage an active lifestyle, to increase body and postural awareness and to increase participants' flexibility, strength, endurance, social skills and self-esteem.

“We start with basic functional exercises because for a lot of these children, doing a donkey kick is hard,” says Gray. “We increase their confidence. Parents want kids to be able to ride a bike. We're educating and giving children a support system to move.”

All Raise the Bar participants receive a pre-program and post-program postural fitness assessment, as well as a sensory motor screening. The assessments provide concrete data to evaluate participants' progress. This ability to measure their short- and long-term goals has helped increase referrals from area professionals and autism organizations, Gray says.

In addition to hosting summer camps for autistic children at the 6,000-square-foot Right Fit facility, staff members oversee the fitness portion of a camp hosted by Charlie's Gift, a local nonprofit organization that provides support for children and families facing autism, sensory processing and related disorders.

“Initially, we decided it would be a good idea to partner with Right Fit because a lot of the kids have some physical deficits, and that's what they focus on at Right Fit,” says Maureen O'Rourke, camp director at Charlie's Gift Summer Camp. “They do a lot of basic exercises with the kids. We can see a huge improvement with kids in stamina and strength. And it helps them focus more when they give them a specific task to do with movement. It helps them to focus the rest of the day.”

By partnering with groups such as Charlie's Gift, word has spread about Right Fit, which opened six years ago. Gray says she markets the program to schools and autism support groups via brochures and a website (www.right-fit.com). She also suggests that clubs starting a similar program contact parent groups and community centers to help generate word-of-mouth referrals.