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Sports, Exercise, and the Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism

February 19, 2009

Autism is a complex neurobiological, developmental disorder that is typically diagnosed in childhood and often lasts throughout a person's lifetime. The hallmark characteristics of autism include an impaired ability to communicate and relate to others socially, a restricted range of activities, and repetitive behaviors such as following very specific routines. While the causes of autism are unknown and preventative measures have yet to be discovered, there does exist effective behavioral therapy that can result in significant improvements for many young children with autism. The most widely used behavioral intervention programs focus on developing communication, social, and cognitive skills. However, new research and anecdotal evidence suggest that some alternative therapeutic choices that include sports, exercise, and other physical activities can be a useful adjunct to traditional behavioral interventions, leading to improvement in symptoms, behaviors, and quality of life for individuals with autism.

Physical activity is important for children with and without disabilities alike as it promotes a healthy lifestyle, but can benefit individuals with autism in unique ways. In the U.S., 16% of children ages 2-19 are overweight, whereas the prevalence of overweight among children with ASD is increased to 19% with an additional 36% at risk for being overweight.1 This means that more than half of all children with ASD are either overweight or at risk. Being overweight can put children at increased risk for numerous health problems, both in childhood and as adults, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, and even depression. The effects of these conditions may take an even greater toll on individuals with autism in combination with common autism symptoms and some highly co-morbid conditions such as gastrointestinal problems as well as depression and anxiety.

It has been suggested that decreased physical activity is the primary reason for the increased rate of overweight in children with autism, while unusual dietary patterns and the use of antipsychotic prescription drugs that can lead weight gain may also contribute.1,2 Participation in physical activity may be challenging for individuals with autism because of reasons such as limited motor functioning,3 low motivation,4 difficulty in planning,5 and difficulty in self-monitoring.6 Increased auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli may too prove challenging for affected individuals.7 Furthermore, physical activity involving social interaction such as team sports can present a difficult situation for someone with autism. However, if implemented appropriately, the addition of physical activity to an autism intervention program can help overcome many of these challenges and improve ones overall quality of life.

It is not surprising to discover that physical activity has been shown to improve fitness levels and general motor function of individuals with autism. A study of a 9-month treadmill walking program on weight reduction in adolescents with severe autism revealed that the program significantly decreased body mass index among the participants. Additionally, as time progressed through the study, the frequency, duration, speed, and elevation of the treadmill walking all increased, indicating a general rise in exercise capacity and physical fitness.8 In a study of swimming training and water exercise among children with autism, ten weeks of hydrotherapy which included three, 60-minute sessions per week, resulted in significant increases in fitness levels indicated by changes in balance, speed, agility, strength, flexibility, and endurance.9

Research has also demonstrated that increased aerobic exercise can significantly decrease the frequency of negative, self-stimulating behaviors that are common among individuals with autism, while not decreasing other positive behaviors.10 Behaviors such as body rocking, spinning, head-nodding, hand flapping, object-tapping, and light gazing, that have been shown to interfere with positive social behavior and learning,11,12,13 can thus be controlled by the use of exercise. Additionally, exercise can discourage aggressive and self-injurious behavior14 while improving attention span.15 In this study, aerobic exercise included 20 minutes of mildly strenuous jogging, however the aforementioned swimming and water exercise study also revealed a significant decrease in stereotypical behaviors in children with autism following a 60 minute session in the pool.16 One theory behind these findings is that the highly structured routines, or repetitive behaviors involved in running or swimming, may be similar to and/or distract from those self-stimulating, repetitive behaviors associated with autism.

Besides improving fitness, motor function, and behavior in individuals with autism, among the most important advantages of physical activity are the social implications of participating in sports and exercise. Physical activity can promote self-esteem, increase general levels of happiness, and can lead to positive social outcomes, all highly beneficial outcomes for individuals with autism.17,18,19 For those with autism who are able to participate in team sports, this presents an opportunity to develop social relationships among teammates and learn how to recognize the social cues required for successful performance on the field or court. However, individuals that prefer individual sports such as running or swimming that do not rely as heavily on social cues may still benefit from the positive attributes of physical activity while forming social relationships with coaches or trainers. In all cases, participating in sports provides individuals with autism with a role in society that may not have existed otherwise.

While there is evidence to support the role of physical activity in improving autism symptoms, behaviors and life-outcomes, sports and exercise should not replace proven behavioral interventions, but may be effective supplements to these therapies and potentially enhance the benefits. In fact, many of the key components of a successful physical activity program for individuals with autism mirror those that make up some of the most common treatments and behavioral interventions. For instance teaching new skills to children by breaking them down into smaller, organized tasks and then rewarding them for successful achievement is a core component of proven interventions such as ABA and TEACCH.20,21 This technique can be readily implemented in teaching physical education to children with autism.

There is increasing interest in establishing program guidelines for enhancing physical activity among individuals with autism. A major reason for this is because research suggests that autism prevalence is increasing and has reached an all-time high. This means that there will be an increasing number of children with autism in schools, physical education classes, and on sports teams. While different individuals with autism may face different challenges in participating in physical activity, these children should still be given the opportunity to experience the benefits of physical activity.22 And while the results may vary, based on all the available research and that which has been presented in this paper, the potential behavioral, physiological, emotional, and social benefits of physical activity for individuals with autism are numerous and should be further explored.


Authors: Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks and
Michael Rosanoff, MPH, Assistant Director of Research and Public Health, Autism Speaks




References:

1 Carol et. al., 2005
2 Towbin, 2006
3 Reid et. al., 2003
4 Koegel et. al, 2001
5 Ozonoff et. al, 1994
6 Hughes et. al. 1994
7 O'Connor et. al., 2000
8 Pitetti, et. al., 2007
9 Yilmaz et. al., 2004
10 Rosenthal-Malek & Mitchell, 1997
11 Bass, 1995
12 Sugai & White, 1986
13 Kern et. al. 1982
14 Morressey, et. al. 1992
15 McGimsey & Favell, 1988
16 Yilmaz, et. al., 2004
17 Pan and Frey, 2006
18 Biddle et. al. 1998
19 Strauss et. al. 2001
20 Exkorn, 2005
21 Schultheis et. al. 2000
22 Todd & Reid, 2006