Physical activity and additional needs

by Richard Fetherston February 28, 2013

Sports, Exercise and the Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism.

(Authors: Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks and Michael Rosanoff, MPH, Assistant Director of Research and Public Health, Autism Speaks –


Autism is a complex neurobiological, developmental disorder that is typically diagnosed in childhood and often lasts throughout a person’s lifetime.
The hallmark characteristics of autism include an impaired ability to communicate and relate to others socially, a restricted range of activities and repetitive behaviours, such as following very specific routines.

While the causes of autism are unknown and preventative measures have yet to be discovered, there is effective behavioural therapy that can result in significant improvements for those with autism.

The most widely used behavioural intervention programmes focus on developing communication, social and cognitive skills. However, new research and anecdotal evidence suggest that some alternative therapeutic choices that include sports, exercise and other physical activitie,s can be a useful adjunct to traditional behavioural interventions, leading to improvement in symptoms, behaviours and quality of life for individuals with autism.
Physical activity is important for children with or without disabilities, as it promotes a healthy lifestyle, but can be of real benefit to individuals with autism.

It has been suggested that decreased physical activity is the primary reason for the increased rate of overweight children with autism, while unusual dietary patterns and the use of antipsychotic prescription drugs that can lead to weight gain, may also contribute.1,2

Participation in physical activity may be challenging for individuals with autism because of reasons such as limited motor functioning,3 low motivation,4 difficulty in planning5 and difficulty in self-monitoring.6 Increased auditory, visual and tactile stimuli may too prove challenging for affected individuals.7 Furthermore, physical activity involving social interaction, such as team sports, can present a difficult situation for someone with autism. However, if implemented appropriately, the addition of physical activity to an autism intervention programme can help overcome many of these challenges and improve ones overall quality of life.

It is not surprising to discover that physical activity has been shown to improve fitness levels and general motor function of individuals with autism. A study of a 9-month treadmill walking programme on weight reduction in adolescents with severe autism revealed that the programme significantly decreased body mass index among the participants. Additionally, as time progressed through the study, the frequency, duration, speed and elevation of the treadmill walking all increased, indicating a general rise in exercise capacity and physical fitness.8 In a study of swimming training and water exercise among children with autism, 10 weeks of hydrotherapy which included three, 60-minute sessions per week, resulted in significant increases in fitness levels indicated by changes in balance, speed, agility, strength, flexibility and endurance.9.

Research has also demonstrated that increased aerobic exercise can significantly decrease the frequency of negative, self-stimulating behaviours that are common among individuals with autism, while not decreasing other positive behaviours.10 Behaviours, such as body rocking, spinning, head-nodding, hand flapping, object-tapping and light gazing, that have been shown to interfere with positive social behavior and learning,11,12,13 can thus be controlled by the use of exercise.

Additionally, exercise can discourage aggressive and self-injurious behaviour14 while improving attention span.15 In this study, aerobic exercise included 20 minutes of mildly strenuous jogging,

However, the aforementioned swimming and water exercise study also revealed a significant decrease in stereotypical behaviours in children with autism following a 60-minute session in the pool.16 One theory behind these findings is that the highly structured routines, or repetitive behaviours involved in running or swimming, may be similar to and/or distract from those self-stimulating, repetitive behaviours associated with autism.

Besides improving fitness, motor function and behaviour in individuals with autism, among the most important advantages of physical activity are the social implications of participating in sports and exercise.
Physical activity can promote self-esteem, increase general levels of happiness and can lead to positive social outcomes, all highly beneficial outcomes for individuals with autism.17,18,19

For those with autism who are able to participate in team sports, this presents an opportunity to develop social relationships among team-mates and learn how to recognise the social cues required for successful performance on the field or court. However, individuals that prefer individual sports, such as running or swimming that do not rely as heavily on social cues, may still benefit from the positive attributes of physical activity while forming social relationships with coaches or trainers. In all cases, participating in sports provides individuals with autism with a role in society that may not have otherwise existed.

While there is evidence to support the role of physical activity in improving autism symptoms, behaviours and life-outcomes, sports and exercise should not replace proven behavioural interventions, but may be effective supplements to these therapies and potentially enhance the benefits.

In fact, many of the key components of a successful physical activity programme for individuals with autism mirror those that make up some of the most common treatments and behavioural interventions. For instance, teaching new skills to children by breaking them down into smaller, organised tasks and then rewarding them for successful achievement, is a core component of proven interventions such as ABA (Applied behaviour analysis and TEACCH (Autism program).20,21 This technique can be readily implemented in teaching physical education to children with autism.

There is increasing interest in establishing programme guidelines for enhancing physical activity among individuals with autism. A major reason for this is because research suggests that autism prevalence is increasing and has reached an all-time high. This means that there will be an increasing number of children with autism in schools, physical education classes and on-sports teams.

While different individuals with autism may face different challenges in participating in physical activity, these children should still be given the opportunity to experience the benefits of physical activity.22 While the results may vary, based on all the available research and that which has been presented in this paper, the potential behavioural, physiological, emotional and social benefits of physical activity for individuals with autism are numerous and should be further explored.

1 Carol et. al., 2005 2 Towbin, 2006 3 Reid et. al., 2003 4 Koegel et. al, 2001 5 Ozonoff et. al, 1994 6 Hughes et. al. 1994 7 O’Connor et. al., 2000 8 Pitetti, et. al., 2007 9 Yilmaz et. al., 2004 10 Rosenthal-Malek & Mitchell, 1997 11 Bass, 1995 12 Sugai & White, 1986 13 Kern et. al. 1982 14 Morressey, et. al. 1992 15 McGimsey & Favell, 1988 16 Yilmaz, et. al., 2004 17 Pan and Frey, 2006 18 Biddle et. al. 1998 19 Strauss et. al. 2001 20 Exkorn, 2005 21 Schultheis et. al. 2000 22 Todd & Reid, 2006