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:
- Look at your child’s interests. There may be sports or activities that build on that interest.
- Decide whether team or individual sports are best for your child. Individual sports include swimming, running, martial arts. These provide structure without the added pressure of being a team member.
- Talk with your child’s therapists to get ideas on how to add exercise into your child’s daily routine and ask for their help in creating a program your child can follow each day.
- Work with activities that can help improve problem areas, for example, if your child has difficulty with hand-eye coordination, start with exercises such as playing catch with balls or balloons.
- Use the video game programs, such as Wii Fit, which offer benefits of exercise while letting your child feel he is playing a video game.
Remember to make exercise fun and interesting. Sports and other exercise activities help build self-esteem, helps improve overall fitness and well-being and provide social opportunities. Start slow and increase the level of activity gradually to accommodate your child’s physical abilities. If your child has physical challenges, talk with your pediatrician or family doctor before creating an exercise program to make sure you are not causing additional problems.
“Exercise Guidelines,” Updated 2009, Aug 13, Staff Writer, Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois: https://www.ncpad.org/disability/fact_sheet.php?sheet=366§ion=2154
“Physical Exercise and Autism,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Autism-Help.org: https://www.autism-help.org/family-physical-exercise-autism.htm
“Physical Exercise and Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Systematic Review,” 2010 Oct-Dec, Russell Lang et al, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 565-576: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1750946710000073
“Sports, Exercise and the Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism,” Date Unknown, Geraldine Dawson, Michael Rosanoff, Autism Speaks: https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/sports-exercise-and-benefits-physical-activity-individuals-autism
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.