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 behaviors such as following very specific routines, as well as sensory sensitivities. While the causes of autism are unknown and preventative measures have yet to be discovered, there does exist effective behavioral therapy that can result in significant improvements for many young children with autism. The most widely used behavioral intervention programs focus on developing communication, social, and cognitive skills. However, lets acknowledge the alternative therapeutic choices that include sports, exercise, and other physical activities can be a useful adjunct to traditional behavioral interventions, leading to improvement in symptoms, behaviors, and quality of life for individuals with autism.
Physical activity is important for children with and without disabilities alike as it promotes a healthy lifestyle, but can benefit individuals with autism in unique ways. In the U.S., 16% of children ages 2-19 are overweight, whereas the prevalence of overweight among children with ASD is increased to 19% with an additional 36% at risk for being overweight. This means that more than half of all children with ASD are either overweight or at risk. Being overweight can put children at increased risk for numerous health problems, both in childhood and as adults, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, and even depression. The effects of these conditions may take an even greater toll on individuals with autism in combination with common autism symptoms and some highly co-morbid conditions such as gastrointestinal problems as well as depression and anxiety.
It has been suggested that decreased physical activity is the primary reason for the increased rate of overweight in children with autism, while unusual dietary patterns and the use of antipsychotic prescription drugs that can lead weight gain may also contribute. Participation in physical activity may be challenging for individuals with autism because of reasons such as limited motor functioning, low motivation, difficulty in planning, and difficulty in self-monitoring. Increased auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli may too prove challenging for affected individuals. 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 program can help overcome many of these challenges and improve ones overall quality of life.
Physical activity has been shown to improve fitness levels and general motor function of individuals with autism. In my own recovery, it was with in the process of activity where the mind body connection was an instrumental piece of reconnecting me with me. Remember the body follows the brain. As my brain rebooted, my body followed. Studies of swimming training and water exercise among children with autism, ten 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.
Research has also demonstrated that increased aerobic exercise can significantly decrease the frequency of negative, self-stimulating behaviors that are common among individuals with autism, while not decreasing other positive behaviors. Additionally, exercise can discourage aggressive and self-injurious behavior while improving attention span. One theory behind these findings is that the highly structured routines, or repetitive behaviors involved in running or swimming, may be similar to and/or distract from those self-stimulating, repetitive behaviors associated with autism.
Besides improving fitness, motor function, and behavior 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. For those with autism who are able to participate in team sports, this presents an opportunity to develop social relationships among teammates and learn how to recognize 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 existed otherwise.
While there is evidence to support the role of physical activity in improving autism symptoms, behaviors and life-outcomes, sports and exercise should not replace proven behavioral 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 program for individuals with autism mirror those that make up some of the most common treatments and behavioral interventions. Techniques with exercise can be readily implemented in teaching physical education to children with autism.
There is increasing interest in establishing program 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.