What Exercises Can Benefit the ASD Population?
by Lisa DiFalco
Individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, also known as ASD, can show a range of characteristics. ASD has been often diagnosed during childhood and can restrict an individual’s ability to communicate. Behavioral therapy programs have been able to improve lives for many children with autism, but alternative therapeutic options such as exercise and sports can play an important role in improving symptoms and complement traditional behavioral interventions. Learn how exercise can benefit those with autism and what forms may be suitable for an ASD population.
Why Would Exercise Be Important?
It is more likely for children with autism to be overweight than the typically developing child. It was found that for children ages 2-19, 16 percent are overweight. The percentage for ASD children is 19 percent with a secondary group of 36 percent who are at risk for becoming overweight. Based on those numbers, over half of children with ASD are at risk of becoming overweight or are overweight. In addition to the problems that being overweight carries on the average child or adult, it is said that effects of conditions related to unhealthy weight gain can be worse on those with autism on both typical autistic symptoms and co-morbid conditions including depression, gastrointestinal problems and anxiety.
Physical activity is known to be a challenge for those living with autism. Reasons that can cause difficulty in the ability to participate in physical activity include:
- Difficulty in self-monitoring;
- Difficulty in planning;
- Low motivation;
- Limited motor function; and
- Increased stimuli from auditory, visual and tactile sources.
An appropriate addition of an exercise program can support an individual’s autism intervention program and improve quality of life. Research on exercise on individuals with ASD conclude with findings such as:
- Physical activity can significantly reduce body mass index based on a treadmill walking program study, with an increase of exercise capacity and physical fitness with participants over a nine-month period.
- Changes in balance, endurance, flexibility, strength, agility and speed during a swimming training and water exercise study.
- A decrease to the frequency of self-stimulating, negative behaviors while not negatively affecting positive behaviors as an outcome of an increase in aerobic exercise.
Exercise can reduce self-injurious and aggressive behavior, improve attention span, promote self-esteem and increase feelings of happiness. Those individuals able to engage in team sports also can learn to better recognize social cues for team play and develop relationships with teammates. Both individual physical activities and opportunities for group sports can help individuals with ASD and provide additional opportunities to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being.
What are Suggestions for Incorporating Exercise?
Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS, founder of Autism Fitness, wrote in Ask the Experts: How to Create Exercise Programs for the ASD Population, that the first step was to select the appropriate ability based on individual cognitive and physical level. The best activity will fail if individual abilities, such as making eye contact or an aversion to specific stimuli, are not accounted for during planning.
Eric Chessen structures much of his fitness programs in terms of “structured learning for chaotic situations.” He is a proponent of general fitness programs that incorporates elements of exercise within play. Physical activity can be broken into small steps with specific goals. Chessen writes of “Frankie”, with whom he has worked with for approximately six years. His focus is to:
- Increase tolerance for physical activity; and
- Perform multiple steps of a desired physical activity.
In the provided example, it was to pick up a ball, carry it overhead and throw it. Such activities are great “foundational” movements and skills for a child to develop. Individuals such as Frankie become more comfortable with physical activity and exploration and will initiate activities such as jumping hurdles or throwing appropriate objects, such as a SandBell during a break. His focus is on general fitness movements such as:
- Climbing; and
He is successful using these elements in “animal-based movement patterns”. Examples include:
- Bear walks;
- Gorilla steps;
- Frog hops; and
- Crab walks.
Other often used movements are:
- Swinging ropes;
- Types of throws;
- Overhead carries of SandBells or soft medicine balls;
- Jumps and hops.
His approach focuses on optimal physical functioning. As the ability to engage in social activities can vary widely from person to person with ASD, he focuses on the core elements that may be more appropriate for those that would not be able to initially tolerate a team sport and would benefit from a breakdown of activities into small steps. Questions healthcare professionals, families and others looking to incorporate more physical activity for those with autism can ask themselves are described below and are based upon Chessen’s fitness hierarchy of goals:
1. How can movement skills be developed, maintained and enhanced?
2. How can exercise be paired with reinforcement to help individuals incorporate them as fun and part of their lifestyle?
3. How can exposure to a various activities and equipment increase an individual’s initiation and creativity skills?
4. How can group socialization be encouraged with small group activities that incorporate elements of helping behaviors and teamwork?
These questions will provide a helpful framework in the development of exercises and physical activities suited to the needs of individuals with ASD.
Physical activity and exercise is a way for anyone to maintain their health. Those with ASD can particularly benefit from increased movement, beyond the physical. Exercise can have a positive impact on self-esteem, weight loss, attention span and communication. Planned activities and exposure to different modalities of exercise must be suited to individual ability and aligned to desired goals to be successful. Those with ASD can break the stereotype and experienced an improvement in symptoms with adequate supports from both behavioral interventions and exercise.