In the four years that Faith Tyssee has been alive, she’s spent more time in a hospital than most adults.
Faith was diagnosed with Down syndrome while in her mother’s womb. She was born with a two-chambered heart, which led to open heart surgery at four months old. In addition to her heart condition, she has had several blood antibody transfusions for a rare blood disorder and a hip replacement for hip dysplasia.
With all of these physical barriers and disabilities, there is a chance that Faith will be a part of the 86.2 percent of kids with Down syndrome who are overweight or obese.
“That’s one of our biggest concerns,” Faith’s mother, Pauline Tyssee, said. “So we definitely want to keep her active.”
High incidence of obesity among kids with special needs
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the rate of obesity among children with disabilities is 30 percent; 12 percent higher than it is for children without disabilities. The highest rates are found among kids with Down syndrome, spina bifida and autism.
Each of these disabilities holds their own set of characteristics and risk factors that can lead to obesity. AbilityPath.org, an online community for parents of special needs, published seven unique obesity risk factors for kids with disabilities, with barriers to exercise ranking number two on the list.
Exercise is difficult, but possible for kids with special needs.
Indeed, getting physical activity is more challenging for kids with special needs than it is for ‘typical’ kids.
“The trick with exercise for these kiddos is, that they mostly have limitation in movement so they are sometimes restricted in the activities they can be part of,” pediatric physical therapist Susan Smith said.
“Some places will accommodate ankle foot orthoses, use of walkers, crutches and wheelchairs, but some can’t or don’t know how.”
But mobility issues aren’t stopping many of these kids from staying active.
Despite her recent hip surgery, Faith leaps around the living room dancing and attempting headstands – acting as if nothing ever happened.
“Faith did tumbling when she was two-years- old, she plays soccer and she’s been swimming since she was born, essentially,” Tyssee says. “She’s very active. The organized soccer is just now starting and she wants to dance and do gymnastics, so that’s the next step.”
VIDEO: Seven-year-old Bastian works through the challenges of cerebral palsy with the help of karate.
San Diego has a variety of sports leagues and organizations that give kids the opportunity to stay active throughout their disability and most importantly, have fun and feel normal.
Pediatric physical therapist Jodi Wright’s love for kids has led her into the world of special needs sports. Wright coaches wheelchair basketball at the Adaptive Sports and Recreation Association in National City and helps out with wheelchair sports camps every year.
Wright says the basketball games and the camps not only help kids stay physically active but psychologically positive as well. At the camps, they’re not singled out as the only kids in a wheelchair, like they often are in school.
“If they know other people like them, they develop that camaraderie and then it pushes them to do more because then they see other people and the stuff they are doing,” Wright said, adding that they often develop the attitude of ‘wow, if so-and-so can do that, I can do it too.’
Hayden Welsh is a six year old with spina bifida – one of the disorders with a very high rate of obesity. Like Wright’s basketball players, Hayden is in a wheelchair due to his condition, but that doesn’t stop him from playing baseball with Miracle League San Diego. His mother, Ashley Welsh, says that learning how to throw the ball and swing a bat has helped him grow physically stronger.
“He also acts like he is running even though his cousin is pushing him to the bases he runs them out with his arms,” Welsh said.
Welsh believes the mental strength that Hayden is gaining through playing baseball is priceless.
“Over all it’s teaching him to never give up even though it will be tough,” Welsh said. “The best part is his smile and the happiness it brings him I still tear up every time he is up to bat knowing that a medical condition will never hold my child from doing what he wants.”
Yes, there is still a great chance that kids with special needs and disabilities will become overweight in their adult lives – that much is inevitable due to the genetics of their disorders. The opportunities for them to engage in physical activity for purposes of exercise and fun, however, are helping many kids in San Diego overcome this obstacle.
Tyssee, Welsh and Wright agree that no one should underestimate their kids just because they have a special condition – they are completely capable of anything they desire.
SLIDESHOW: Despite her Down syndrome diagnosis, Faith still enjoys playing soccer.
When an airport security agent in the Oakland airport saw Wright’s basketball players, the agent told Wright that the sight of them in their wheelchairs ‘broke her heart.’
Wright had a ready response for the agent:
“Don’t say it’s sad that they’re in a chair! They just went and played in a basketball tournament that’s awesome!”