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The Role of Exercise in Helping Children With Autism

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is often the primary focus of caring for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 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 ASD increase with the presence of sedentary behaviors. As a therapist or registered behavioral technician, you need to understand more about how exercise affects children with autism. 

Exercise linked to better health of children with autism 

A lot of research has gone into the role that exercise plays in better health across many populations. In fact, a study by the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health found exercise has helped to reduce anxiety in children with autism.  

In another study by the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada, researchers found that exercise like jogging, horseback riding, swimming, yoga, dance, and martial arts help to improve behavioral outcomes. An interesting note here is that exercise does not necessarily have to involve aerobic activity to prove effective among patients with autism.

How does exercise impact the success of ABA? 

ABA sessions must focus on all routine activities in order to have success. Since children with autism will encounter experiences requiring physical activity, including exercise interventions in ABA treatment can have positive, long-term effects. 

For example, water-based exercises have been linked to improvements in social learning among those with ASD. Furthermore, findings suggest that the improvements in social learning that result from these therapies continue even when water exercises are withdrawn.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 for children with autism? 

Little evidence suggests one form of exercise may be more beneficial than another. However, creating an exercise intervention program for your patients with autism warrants careful consideration of each child’s capabilities and current social skills. 

Unfortunately, these studies did not focus on comprehensive age groups of children with autism. 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 younger 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 with autism? 

Depending on the current behaviors and symptoms of your clients with autism, 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. 

The following is a breakdown of an exercise intervention program for your clients: 

  • Assess their current ability to handle exercise, including physical and mental limitations. 
  • Review their 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 the exercises in which your client appears most interested. 
  • 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 to one of 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 autism when not under the care of a physician. Improving social learning skills and behaviors should remain the primary goal of exercise intervention. 

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 can reduce risk for major health problems later in life. Plus, an exercise intervention can be key to improving ABA sessions for children with autism. As a result, creating an exercise intervention program for your clients can be a great way to help them lead better lives. 

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