Exercise is an important component to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for all children. In the United States, over 16% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 years of age are considered overweight or obese. For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this percentage is even higher with 19% of children with ASD classified as overweight and an additional 36% of children at risk of becoming overweight.
Being overweight can lead to increased risk for additional health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and bone and joint disorders. Children with ASD are also more likely to display difficulty with balance, coordination, flexibility, and motor planning than children without ASD, and these difficulties may be increased by a lack of physical activity. Therefore, engaging children with ASD in physical activity and exercise should be emphasized as daily activities.
What types of exercise programs are appropriate for children with ASD?
The answer should really begin by focusing on the interests of the individual child. What types of activities does the child enjoy? For a child who loves to run, perhaps engaging the child by running on a treadmill or around a school track may be the most appropriate physical activity, or perhaps, the child loves the water and providing opportunities for aquatic exercise would be the most engaging. There is no magic answer to what type of activity is the most appropriate for children with ASD. The goal is simply to get the child moving.
Research studies have looked at running or jogging, swimming or water aerobics, stationary biking, weightlifting, treadmill walking, roller-skating, and walking in snowshoes with children with ASD. Incorporating exercise into age-appropriate games, such as tag now that the weather is so beautiful, or simply climbing on playground equipment may also be effective. The options are truly endless.
What are the benefits of physical activity and exercise for children with ASD?
Research studies have noted many benefits of physical activity for children with ASD. Perhaps not surprisingly, improvements in physical fitness, including endurance, strength, flexibility, and weight loss, have been noted with daily exercise when it comes to children with ASD. Behavioral improvements have also been noted as a benefit of exercise. Children with ASD have demonstrated decreased self-stimulating behaviors (arm flapping, rocking, spinning), decreased aggression and disruptive behaviors, and improvements in on-task behavior, sustained attention, and resilience to academic demands. These improvements were noted to last between 40- and 90-minutes after exercise.
If you need assistance in developing an exercise program for your child, you can consider consulting a pediatric physical therapist. Even if you are not currently being seen by a physical therapist, a local physical therapist should be able to schedule an assessment to assist you in designing an appropriate physical activity program. Your child’s physical education or adapted physical education teacher at school may also be an appropriate resource when developing exercise programs for your child to complete at home. Finally, you may want to check with local special recreation programs at your local park district; many have free programming for children with disabilities such as ASD.