For children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a sedentary lifestyle (including too much time on electronic devices), can worsen ASD symptoms and contribute to additional health problems such as obesity, motor impairment, and isolation. It’s been reported that as many as 40% of children age 10-17, who have autism are overweight or obese. Other studies indicate that among children age 2-19 who have autism, up to 36% are at risk for being overweight. The primary reason for these higher rates among ASD children is insufficient physical activity—the very activity that can enhance their quality of life.
Children on the Spectrum benefit from physical activity just as much, and perhaps more, than typically developing children.
In addition to boosting cardiovascular fitness and strength, children on the Spectrum who participate in regular physical activity and/or organized sports and fitness programs can make great improvement in their
Even beyond these physical benefits, participation in regular sports or fitness programs can enhance the child’s emotional wellbeing, boost self-esteem, and improve social skills. So what’s keeping kids on the Spectrum from being involved in an exercise or sports program?
Ironically, many of the benefits of physical activity tie into the reasons why caregivers are hesitant to enroll a Spectrum child in a fitness program or to allow them to play outdoors regularly. It’s true, there are challenges: Spectrum children can have limitations in motor skills. They may not be able to plan ahead, anticipate, and respond in ways that allow for success at a task. Children with autism can become overwhelmed by the increased auditory, visual, and sensory stimuli in a sports or fitness setting. However, if a program is planned and executed properly, all of these challenges can be managed and physical activity can be an appropriate intervention activity that helps kids on the Spectrum thrive.
First, speak with your child’s care team—psychologist, physical therapist, or physician—to assess your child’s level of readiness and to customize a program. Some children may begin with visits to a playground at a quiet time when they can be slowly introduced to appropriate equipment. Also, daily walks for increasing lengths of time and over different terrain (hills, wooded, city streets) can be a great beginning on the path to physical fitness. Others might join a small fitness class with children who have similar abilities/limits. For some children, the best first step may be learning at home by exploring different size balls from different types of sports, learning about the sports, and over time exploring the skills for a particular sport or activity of interest.
Swimming is a wonderful activity for children who do not have a sensory issue with water. Many towns and private aquatic facilities offer swim lessons for special needs children. Local yoga studios offer programs specifically designed for differing abilities. There is even a special certification for working with children who have autism and other special developmental needs. Another avenue to introduce fitness to your child is to bring her/him to observe other children involved in sports programs. Discuss how the children follow the coach’s instruction and work together toward a goal. Point out how the children are of different sizes and abilities. Your healthcare team can guide you to the right first steps or to organized programs that best suit your child’s needs.
Ask your child’s healthcare providers for referrals. Your child’s behavior specialist may even teach programs at their facility. Inquire with support groups, YMCA or JCC, and non-profit organizations that provide services for special needs children.
Once you’ve made a list of possible programs: Visit facilities and meet with instructors to discuss your child’s needs. Be sure to observe classes. Ask for a trial class or a trial week.
Instructors should be trained to understand and teach to the needs of children with ASD. They may have degrees in adaptive physical education or exercise science with a specialization in developmental disorders. The instructor should demonstrate understanding of the physical, emotional, and sensory needs of your child. By observing a class, you should be able to see how the instructor breaks down specific exercises/physical tasks, helps children set goals, and provides positive behavior support as well as appropriate correction.
By getting your child involved with a regular program of physical activity, you are giving them an opportunity to challenge themself within appropriate boundaries, enhance their physical and emotional well being, and to move beyond the perceptions of what children with ASD can or cannot do.
Autism Friendly Fitness Centers in Connecticut:
Autism Speaks List of Recreation Activities (provides a searchable database by state)
Obesity takes heavy toll on children with autism. SpectrumNews.org (10 Sept 2015). post by Jessica Wright. Accessed 8 May 2017: https://spectrumnews.org/news/obesity-takes-heavy-toll-on-children-with-autism/
AutismFitness.com (website and book by Eric Chessen). http://autismfitness.com (free e-book available)
Sports, Exercise, and the Benefits of PHsyical Acitivitty for Individuals with Autism. (9 Feb 2009) AutismSpeaks.org : https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/sports-exercise-and-benefits-physical-activity-individuals-autism
Autism and Swimming: children with Autism can Benefit from Physical Activity. SuperSwimmersFoundation.org: http://superswimmersfoundation.org/Autism-and-Swimming.htm
Physical Exercise and Autism. Edelson, Stephen. Autism Research Institute: https://www.autism.com/treating_exercise
Jones, R. A., Downing, K., Rinehart, N. J., Barnett, L. M., et. al., (2017). Physical activity, sedentary behavior and their correlates in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A systematic review. PLoS ONE, 12(2), e0172482. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172482
Dillon, S. R., Adams, D., Goudy, L., Bittner, M., & McNamara, S. (2016). Evaluating Exercise as Evidence-Based Practice for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in Public Health, 4, 290. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00290
Bandini, L. G., Gleason, J., Curtin, C., Lividini, K., Anderson, S. E., Cermak, S. A., Maslin, M., & Must, A. (2013). Comparison of physical activity between children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children. Autism, 17(1), 44–54. doi:10.1177/1362361312437416
Broder-Fingert, S., Brazauskas, K., Lindgren, K., Iannuzzi, D., & Van Cleave, J. (2014). Prevalence of overweight and obesity in a large clinical sample of children with autism. Academic Pediatrics, 14(4), 408–414. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2014.04.004