Exercise and Physical Activity for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Exercise is an important component to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for all children.  In the United States, over 16% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 years of age are considered overweight or obese.For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this percentage is even higher with 19% of children with ASD classified as overweight and an additional 36% of children at risk for becoming overweight.2  Being overweight can lead to increased risk for additional health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and bone and joint disorders.  Children with ASD are also more likely to display difficulty with balance, coordination, flexibility, and motor planning than children without ASD, and these difficulties may be increased by a lack of physical activity.Therefore, engaging children with ASD in physical activity and exercise should be emphasized as part of daily activities.

What types of exercise programs are appropriate for children with ASD?  The answer should really begin by focusing on the interests of the individual child.  What types of activities does the child enjoy?  For a child who love to run, perhaps engaging the child by running on a treadmill or around a school track may be the most appropriate physical activity, or perhaps, the child love the water and providing opportunities for aquatic exercise would be the most engaging.  There is no magic answer to what type of activity is the most appropriate for children with ASD.  The goal is simply to get the child moving.  Research studies have successfully investigated the use of running or jogging, swimming or water aerobics, stationary biking, weight lifting, treadmill walking, roller-skating, and walking in snow shoes with children with ASD.Incorporating exercise into age appropriate games, such as tag or simply climbing on playground equipment may also be effective. The options are truly endless.

How do I engage my child with ASD in physical activity?  Once you have determined the type of physical activity that the child with ASD may enjoy, finding strategies to maintain the child’s engagement in the activity is important.  The child may need physical or verbal guidance for the activity, meaning the child may need someone to actually hold their hand or verbally coach them through the activity.  The child may simply need someone to model the activity, meaning a peer, sibling, or parent would participate in the activity with the child.  What a great way to promote health and fitness for the whole family!  Use of stickers or favorite toys or snacks may also serve as reinforcement.  For me in practice as a physical therapist, one of my favorite strategies was to include the child in the planning of the physical activity session.  I would number a piece a construction paper and take turns with the child to select the activities we would complete for the session.  This provided a sense of control to the child, as we would refer to and check off our “list” after completing each activity.   Consider the strategies that work the best in your home and for your child.  Could you apply those same strategies to encouraging physical activity?

What are the benefits of physical activity and exercise for children with ASD?  Research studies have noted many benefits of physical activity for children with ASD.  Perhaps not surprisingly, improvements in physical fitness, including improves endurance, strength, flexibility, and weight loss, have been noted with exercise with children with ASD.3 Behavioral improvements have also been noted with the use of exercise. Children with ASD have demonstrated decreased stereotypic and self-stimulating behaviors (arm flapping, rocking, spinning), decreased aggression and disruptive behaviors, and improvements in on-task behavior, increased responsiveness and accuracy to academic demands.These improvements were noted to last between 40- and 90-minutes after exercise.

Who can help me if I have questions about developing an exercise program? If you need assistance in developing an exercise program for your child, you can consider consulting a pediatric physical therapist.  Even if you are not currently being seen by a physical therapist, a local physical therapist should be able to schedule an assessment to assist you in designing an appropriate physical activity program.  Your child’s physical education or adapted physical education teacher at school may also be an appropriate resource when developing exercise programs for your child to complete at home.  Finally, you may want to check with local community programs, who may also have experience including children with disabilities such as ASD into their activities.

Exercise is important for everyone!  Make it a family activity, make it fun, and GET MOVING!

1.        National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Accessed December 19, 2011 from:http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes.htm.

2.       Curtain C, Bandini LG, Perrin E, Tybor DJ, Must A.  Prevalence of overweight in children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders: a chart review.  BMC Pediatr. 2005; 5: 48.

3.       Lang R, Koegel LK, Ashbaugh K, Regester A, Ence W, Smith W. Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2010;4:565-576.

 

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