The Benefits of Exercise in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Blog by Bridget Hobbs, PT, DPT

1 in 68. Most of us have heard this statistic in the news recently. The latest research from the CDC indicates that this is the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, in America’s youth. Because April is Autism Awareness Month, I wanted to shed some light on a topic that often may be overlooked, which is how physical activity can have such a positive influence on the quality of life in children with ASD.

Autism Diagnostic Clinic 2 - Richard Howe

According to Curtin et al., 16% of children ages 6-19 are overweight, whereas the prevalence of being overweight among children with ASD is increased to 19% with an additional 35.7% at risk for being overweight.1 Being overweight can put these children at risk for gastrointestinal issues, diabetes, cardiovascular and joint problems. Physical activity not only encourages a healthy lifestyle, but also assists with providing children with ASD social, emotional and behavioral benefits as well.

When children with ASD participate in team sports, whether through their school park district or special-rec association, they are part of a larger entity. Team sports can do wonders for a child’s self-esteem, ability to communicate with peers and overall sense of well-being.

Swimming and aquatic therapy are great means of exercise for children with ASD. In a study conducted by Yilmaz et al, after 10 weeks of swimming training, the balance, speed, agility, power, hand grip, upper and lower extremity muscle strength, flexibility and cardiorespiratory endurance increased. Also after the hydrotherapy, the amount of repetitive stereotyped movement patterns (spinning, swinging and delayed echolalia) decreased.2

We cannot forget that kids on the autism spectrum are still kids. They like to run, jump, swim and shoot baskets just like typically developing kids. Often these skills need to be broken down so that children with ASD are able to understand how to complete a task. For example, when teaching a child with ASD how to play hopscotch, start by doing side to side jumps, then adding bringing feet together and apart in a jump, followed by helping the child to draw the hopscotch course and finally, demonstration from another peer can help the child understand how the skill is performed.

Physical activity for children with ASD can sometimes be more challenging because of other issues such as low muscle tone, poor motor planning, behavioral issues and decreased attention. However, when encouraged properly and in the right setting, children with ASD can really flourish physically, emotionally and mentally with the addition of more physical activity in their lives. Physical activity should be used as a fun, engaging, supplement to a child’s therapeutic daily activities.

References

1 Curtin, Bandini, Perrin, Tybor, Must (2005). Prevalence of overweight in children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders: a chart review. BMC Pediatr 2005: 5:48

2 Yilmaz, Yanardag, Birkan and Bumin (2004). Effects of Swimming Training on Physical Fitness and Water Orientation in Autism. Pediatrics International, 46, 624-626.
http://www.autismspeaks.org

About the Author

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Bridget Hobbs, PT, DPT, is a licensed physical therapist with a passion for working with kids with special needs. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Sciences from Marquette University and then continued at Marquette to receive her clinical doctorate in Physical Therapy in 2006. Bridget started her physical therapy career working with adults who had orthopedic, cardiac and neurological injuries. In 2009, she began working in the pediatric realm and has found her home in this setting. Areas of interest for Bridget include treating children with torticollis, orthopedic injuries, autism, gross motor delays and neuro-muscular disorders. Bridget has advanced training in aquatic therapy, respiratory treatment, treatment of torticollis, gait and working with premature infants. She looks forward to using her experience and passion for kids to translate to great therapy with your child.

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