Exercising with Autism: What Parents Need to Know

The incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is on the rise. As the number of cases diagnosed increases, so to does the interest in the health and well-being of those living with ASD. Research supports the benefits of exercise for autism. Studies have highlighted the need for effective exercise interventions for children and adolescents with ASD. Exercise not only reduces the negative effects of inactivity, but also assists with the management of ASD symptoms.

Despite evidence supporting the importance of exercise for autism, youth with ASD do less physical activity than their peers. Given that 80% of Aussie kids don’t get enough exercise, this is cause for concern. Sedentary behaviour increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and a number of other chronic health conditions. The good news? We change that!

Why is exercise so important?

ASD related symptoms:

We all know exercise is good for us, but it may be even more beneficial for individuals with autism. There is increasing evidence to support additional benefits for ASD than just physical health. These include:
• better emotional regulation and attention
• improvements in behaviour (e.g reductions in stereotypical and repetitive behaviours)
• increased social behaviour and communication skills

Motor improvements:

Balance, postural stability, gait, joint flexibility, coordination and movement speed are often more challenging for those with autism. These challenges can be reduced by increasing levels of physical activity. Motor improvements lead to better:
• overall physical endurance (e.g strength and aerobic fitness)
• independence and function for daily tasks
• self-confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of normalcy

Getting started

What to consider

Youth with autism face a number of unique barriers to being active. These include sensory challenges and differences with information processing. They may also exhibit a lack of confidence due to motor planning, coordination or proprioception difficulties.

What’s next?

If your child is diagnosed with autism, it’s time to chat to an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP). AEPs are allied health professionals that have the expertise to prescribe appropriate exercise for autism. They understand the perceived barriers to physical activity in those with ASD, and can provide a safe and specific exercise program.

An AEP will consider the following when prescribing exercise for those with ASD:
• common co-morbidities such as ADHD, obesity and epilepsy
• medication side-effects
• stage of motor development to target appropriate exercise interventions
• cognitive ability and learning style to enhance motor

Initially, a session may not always look like a ‘traditional’ exercise routine. Movement modifications are made to support the individuals needs, and also – to make it FUN!

It’s important for your child to work with an AEP who has an understanding of ASD – so don’t be afraid to ask. We also encourage you to educate the AEP about your child’s individual presentation and strengths! Exercise Physiology services delivered by an AEP can be funded by the NDIS, under ‘Capacity Building – Improved health and wellbeing’.

To find an AEP near you, click here.