Autism And Exercise: Physical Activities Improve Autistic Children’s Motor Skills, Behavior, Attention, Social Communication & School Performance

By Olivia Reese, Parent Herald September 26, 02:00 am
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Past studies found that aside from boosting motor skills, movement-based autism therapies also improve autistic children’s attention and social communication skills, behavioral problems, and academic performance.
(Photo : Darren McCollester/Getty Images for BCH)

Physical activities are often overlooked in autism therapies. Parents usually put emphasis on training their autistic child to communicate verbally, establish eye contact, and how to behave in social situations. Experts, however, said that exercise plays a huge part in providing a better quality of life to people with autism.

Meghann Lloyd, an associate professor of health sciences at the University of Ontario in Canada, said that it's important for autistic children to be physically active "so they can gain all the other skills that they need," according to a report from Spectrum, a news and expert opinion site on autism research. Past studies found that aside from boosting motor skills, movement-based autism therapies also improve autistic children's attention and social communication skills, behavioral problems, and academic performance.

There are no specific activities that benefit autistic kids the most, but exercises such as yoga, creative dance, and robotics have positive results. These physical activities reportedly improve autistic children's social interaction, communication, and motor skills, said Anjana Bhat, an associate professor of biomechanics and movement science at the University of Delaware, Spectrum further reported.

Lloyd said that exercise encourages children with autism to learn social roles including role-playing, turn-taking, and both verbal and non-verbal communication. Autistic individuals have trouble interacting, playing, or relating to other people.

They also tend to be averse towards playing "pretend" games, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with autism often prefer being alone as well.

Basic movements such as walking, sitting, or rolling over can be learned by autistic children over time, but recreational exercise and coordinated sports are different matters. More than 80 percent of kids with autism have a hard time in coordinated and socially oriented movements like running, hopping, and kicking and catching a ball.

This pushes autistic individuals to not attempt engaging in any sports at all. They also worry that they might not learn the rules of the games instantly.

Dr. Stephen M. Edelson, the director of the Autism Research Institute, said vigorous or strenuous exercise lowers autistic people's risk of stereotypic (self-stimulatory) behaviors, aggression, hyperactivity, destructiveness, and self-injury. Vigorous exercises involve a 20-minute or longer aerobic workout three to four days a week.

Vigorous exercises also help children with autism avoid being obese or overweight, which presents different problems. Vigorous exercise also reduces stress, anxiety, and depression risk.

Aside from these, vigorous physical activities improve sleep, memory, and reaction time. Edelson advised parents and teachers to incorporate rigorous exercise programs to children's Individualized Education Program (IEP).

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