The Role of Exercise in Helping Children With Autism

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is often primary focus of caring for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). However, researchers are starting to understand the crucial role of other activities, including exercise, in ensuring the overall health of these children. Yet, the challenges faced by children with ASDs increases with the presence of sedentary behaviors, and as a therapist or registered behavioral technician, you need to understand more about how exercise affects children with ASDs.

What’s the Risk of Sedentary Behaviors in Children With ASDs?

In a recent study, reports the U.S. National Library of Medicine, researchers reviewed the sedentary behaviors, degree of physical activity and risk of obesity in children aged 6-17 with an ASD. Results suggest having a diagnosis of an ASD is linked to a higher risk of obesity. However, adjusting for the presence of secondary conditions nearly eliminated this conclusion.

The findings seem to refute widely held beliefs on the prevalence of obesity among those with ASDs. However, the most important takeaway requires a bit of generalization. Since findings seemed inconsistent when accounting for the presence of secondary conditions, those who lack secondary diagnoses may still have a slightly increased risk for obesity. In addition, medications or other interventions may be necessary for children with ASDs who have a family history of obesity.

Exercise Linked to Better Health of Children With ASDs

The role of exercise in better health of many populations has been extensively studied in the past. In fact, a recent study by the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health found exercise has helps to reduce anxiety in children with ASDs, explains Autism Speaks. Exercise does not necessarily have to involve aerobic exercise to be effective.

In another recent study by the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada, researchers found jogging, horseback riding, swimming, yoga, dance and martial arts help to improve behavioral outcomes for children with ASDs.

How Does Exercise Impact the Success of ABA?

ABA sessions must focus on all routine activities in order to be successful. Since children with ASDs will encounter experiences requiring physical activity, including exercise interventions in today’s ABA treatment can have major long-term positive effects.

For example, the effects of water exercises improved social learning, reports SAGE Journals. Furthermore, researchers sought to determine the longevity of the effect. Study participants were split into two groups with one group completing water exercises during the first 10 weeks. Meanwhile, the water exercises were discontinued for the first group when the second group began. Findings suggest the improvements in social learning continue even when water exercises are withdrawn.

Behavioral therapists and technicians can use this information to create exercise interventions as part of treatment plans for children with autism. Ultimately, engaging in even minimal exercise interventions may improve social learning and skills throughout the course of ABA sessions.

What Types of Exercise Appear Most Effective?

Little evidence suggests one form of exercise may be more beneficial than another. However, creating an exercise-intervention program warrants careful consideration of each child’s capabilities and current social level.

Unfortunately, these studies did not focus on comprehensive age groups of children with autism or ASDs. Most participants were less than 16-years-old, and larger, more age-inclusive studies are needed in the future to determine if results are widely applicable to adolescents and children of less than 5-years-old.

For example, individualized exercises may be most effective as a starting point. Or, horseback riding, including equine therapy, may be more effective for children with limited mobility. Consequently, the findings of these studies suggest their primary effectivity is best seen between ages five and 12. In other words, early interventions before age five may include physical activity on an individual scale, which should be at the discretion and preference of the care management team.

Should You Start Using Exercise Interventions for Your Clients?

Depending on the current behaviors and symptoms of your clients, you may want to start using exercise interventions as part of ABA sessions. If your clients appear to exhibit increased levels of stress, anxiety or depression, exercise interventions may be able to reduce the appearance of these symptoms.

Autism Speaks is currently in the progress of creating an exercise-therapy tool kit for therapists and family members of children with ASDs. This upcoming tool kit will complement the existing tool kits available at Autism Speaks. However, until the tool kit is unveiled, you will need to follow this breakdown structure in designing an exercise-intervention program for your clients:

  • Assess current ability to handle exercise, including physical and mental limitations.
  • Review current physical activity levels. If your client has not previously been exposed to an exercise intervention, you will need to stretch out the introduction process. In other words, go slowly in introducing exercise to clients who have never been exposed to an exercise program.
  • Determine what exercises your client appears most interested in.
  • Start with gradual exposure to simple, individualized exercises. If these exercises are well-received, advance to the next exercise slowly. In other words, do not immediately jump for the most intense exercise options.
  • Document any positive changes in social learning as the exercise-intervention program progresses. If positive results are not achieved, consider moving to a second type of exercise. For example, replace horseback riding with swimming lessons.
  • Do not make weight loss or fitness an initial goal of an exercise intervention. Weight loss programs can be dangerous for children with ASDs when not under the care of a physician. While some weight loss may be warranted in overweight or obese children with ASDs, the primary goal of exercise intervention must be improving social learning skills and behaviors.

Putting It All Together

Exercise is a great opportunity for improving the health of the community you serve. It promotes the release of endorphins, and exercise can reduce risk for major health problems later in life. However, an exercise intervention can be key to improving ABA sessions that have stalled or slowed. If the exercise intervention does not achieve positive results, the amount of time spent is minimal. As a result, you can tailor your ABA and exercise interventions to meet the needs of your clients as time progresses.


Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

Subscribe to Relias’ Impact Blog

Get the latest articles straight to your inbox and better navigate the ever-changing healthcare landscape.

Connect with Us

to find out more about our training and resources