We all know the benefits of exercise. It helps decrease our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. It helps us maintain a healthy weight, reduces anxiety and depression and improves our overall feeling of well-being. But can exercise specifically help children with autism and Asperger's syndrome? A number of studies have found that regular exercise does indeed help children with autism and AS.
The Overall Benefits of Exercise for Children with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome
Researchers at the University of California reviewed 18 studies involving exercise and children with autism and found that children who participated in exercise. Some of the results they found were:
- Repetitive behaviors, such as rocking, hand flapping or tapping, decreased
- Children were less aggressive
- On-task and attention to task increased
- Academic performance improved
- Physical coordination improved
- Motor skills improved
In the United States, approximately 15 percent of children are overweight, however, in children with autism, this increases to 19 percent and 36 percent of children with autism are at risk of becoming overweight according to AutismSpeaks.org. While being overweight places everyone at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other diseases, children with autism often have gastrointestinal problems which being overweight may worsen.
Difficulty with motor skills may be one reason that children with autism do not participate in physical activity. They may also find it difficult to plan and monitor an exercise program or may avoid team sports or even playing outdoors with other children. For some, sensory sensitivities may make exercise uncomfortable or painful.
Social Benefits of Exercise
Sports, both team and individual, offer children social opportunities. Team sports should be carefully considered as not all children with autism are prepared for the social environment of a team sport. Other sports, such as swimming and track, may offer the benefit of being part of a team but with emphasis more on individual performance rather than having to negotiate the social cues and expectations of being a "team player." These individual sports still provide opportunities for social interaction with other individuals on the team and coaches on a less formal basis.
One study looked at children with autism who participated in running and swimming and found a decrease in repetitive behaviors after 60 minutes of swimming. According to Autism Speaks, this may be because swimming itself involves repetitive behaviors and it might decrease the need for those behaviors outside of the pool. Aerobic exercise and running have also been found to decrease these types of behaviors.
Considerations for Parents
Your child is unique. He may have difficulty with motor skills or be unwilling to exercise because sensory problems make it painful. He may want to avoid sports that involve other children. But the benefits of exercise for children with autism and Asperger's syndrome are evident. Finding the right type of exercise will help build your child's motivation to continue. Some of the ways parents can help their child become more active: