Credit: Yuriana Figueroa, Student Writer
Date: February 7, 2019

The Correlation Between Physical Activity & Autism in Children

Being physically active comes with a surplus of benefits that promotes productivity within the body and mind. In specific, physical activity can improve a child’s overall way of life with autism spectrum disorder. Ranging from improved health benefits, to improving motor skills and overall functionality, staying active has the ability to make a difference in children’s lives. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the lack of leading an active lifestyle particularly leads children with ASD to have a higher exposure to screen related activities. Thus, such exposure can cause children to start away from physical activity.

Risks Associated with Lack of Exercise
When it comes to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, they advise that children participate in fitness related activities for at least an hour to three hours a day, depending on their age. Despite this recommendation, it is particularly beneficial that children stay on the move as much as possible throughout the day. Aside from health complications such as cardiovascular diseases, children become exposed to an array of negative factors when they are not engaged in any or much exercise. Today, children are arguably spending a lot more time in front of a screen than ever before. Due to this, a child is more likely to watch television or spend their time on a digital device instead of being physically active. In particular, this rise in increased screen time can hinder a child on the spectrum by depleting them from social interactions where they can put their communication skills to practice. With this in mind, children with ASD may be more susceptible to senses of isolation if they are not active, as they tend to spend more time participating in independent activities. Furthermore, an increasingly high amount of stationary activities can cause children to avoid practicing their motor skills as a whole.

Benefits
Integrating fitness into a child’s life on the spectrum has proven that it is able to enhance multiple aspects of their health. According to the Autism Research Institution, the integration of physical activity is capable of aiding mental health by showcasing an improvement in symptoms of anxiousness or high levels of stress, which can lead to another onset of problems in the future.

Alongside these benefits, sleeping improvements are also an effect of physical activity. It has been proven that exercise leads to the production of melatonin; a chemical that is associated with the initiation of sleep. When a child is active throughout the day, they tend to use up more energy which may help them get a good night’s rest and also help with their mood.

Moreover, exercise is capable of enhancing a child’s motor skills, which improves their quality of life at home and at school. Correspondingly, a combination of exercise at home and physiotherapy are a great way to focus on the improvement of motor skills on a deeper level. For example, sensory improvements can be achieved in the aspect of stabilizing coordination during activity and strengthening grasping skills with their hands. Through these acquisitions, children can learn to experience independence by gaining the skillset to do more things on their own without much difficulty.

Merging Physical Activity into The Spectrum
When it comes to promoting physical activity, parents or guardians may find it challenging to pinpoint where to start, or which activities suit their child best. In order to assess a more condensed and particular set of activities for a child with ASD, it is highly encouraged that a health care provider is involved in the process. It is important that each child is provided with different personalized options to stay active that work well with their abilities and level of participation. By involving a healthcare provider, the child will be able to engage in physical activity in ways that are tailored to their needs and capabilities without exposing them to activities that may be too difficult for them to partake in. Additionally, it should be noted that the physical activity plan should be structured in a manner that includes aerobic, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening activities which work well with the child’s limitations.

Furthermore, an explorative review conducted by the University of California Santa Barbara noted that positive results are produced when a child is guided through activity with individualized attention. Likewise, using reinforcements can be an effective way of getting a child to participate during physical activity. A simple “good job!” or other encouraging phrases can give the child a sense of confidence to want to engage.

In conclusion, the observation of multiple studies showed that profound levels of activity produced much more advanced results than those activities classified on the low-intensity scale. Although, it is important to begin at a level that is suitable for the child and then move forward with more advanced activities.

The following are a few examples of physical activities that were found to be beneficial and may be suitable for children on the spectrum:

  • Jogging
  • Playing tag
  • Playing follow the leader
  • Any game that encourages movement

References:

“Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Sleep.” Tuck Sleep, 10 May 2017, www.tuck.com/autism-spectrum-disorder-and-sleep/.

ASD: Motor skills, exercise and physiotherapy
https://www.novita.org.au/helpful-information/asd-motor-skills-exercise-and-physiotherapy/

Edelson, Stephen M. “Physical Exercise and Autism.” DSM-V: What Changes May Mean | Autism Research Institute, www.autism.com/treating_exercise.

Lukas. “Children’s Team Building on Green Grassland.” Free Stock Photos, www.pexels.com/photo/action-activity-boy-children-296301/.

Must, Aviva et al. “Barriers to Physical Activity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Relationship to Physical Activity and Screen Time” Journal of physical activity & health vol. 12,4 (2015): 529-34.

Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. (2019). Santa Barbara, California: The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Asperger Research Center, University of California, pp.566-574.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.