Exercise for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) 

Getting Moving on the Spectrum 

Autism is a complex neurobiological, developmental disorder that can affect multiple different aspects of a person’s life including their verbal and non-verbal communication, social awareness and interactions, repetitive behaviours, interest in activities, future planning and level of sedentary behaviour. (Hodges, H., Fealko, C., & Soares, N. 2020)

These symptoms can often cause a withdrawal from participation in physical activity and exercise compared to those who are neurotypical. On average, we see that those on the spectrum are less engaged in exercise and are often more likely to spend more time with sedentary activities. (Must, A., et al. 2014). Therefore, those living with ASD require an extra helping hand when it comes to exercising at the right level and in a safe way. Many also require help picking appropriate exercises and how to make it part of their life or how to participate safely within their given sport to reduce injury to them and others. 

Benefits of Exercise

Exercise can help improve:

  • Attention span
  • Healthy lifestyle
  • Posture /Balance
  • Self-esteem
  • Bone / joint health
  • Coordination
  • Motor planning
  • Gross and fine motor skills
  • Independence

Exercise has been shown to help decrease (Teh, E. J., etal. 2022):

  • Self-stimulatory behaviours (body rocking, spinning, nodding, hand flapping, tapping, and light gazing etc)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Aggression 
  • Self-injury 
  • Destructiveness

Where to Start

Cardiovascular exercise and resistance training should be completed each week and can come in many forms. When getting started with exercise for ASD, adherence is our main goal, so focus first on exploring what is easiest to engage with and carries the most enjoyment. 

Getting started can be as little as 5 minutes of continuous exercise such as walking, riding or swimming 1-2 times a week. Over time, the goal is to build this to the recommended exercise guidelines of 40-60 minutes of activity on most days of the week. Some great places to start are structured programs or sports, if group situations are not suitable try something like a solo sport or even hiking, rock climbing, guided gym sessions or seeing an exercise professional for tailored and structured programs.

Accessing Exercise Physiology

As Exercise Physiologists, we are able to help those with ASD find the exercise that is best suited to them. NDIS funding can be used to gain access to a tailored exercise plan form an Exercise Physiologist under the Capacity Building and Improved Health and Wellbeing budgets.

Each person has unique challenges and for someone with ASD some of the things we consider are:

  • Level of motor functioning
  • Motivation
  • Ability to self monitor
  • Stimuli sensitivity (auditory, visual and tactile)
  • Comorbidities eg ADHD, obesity and epilepsy
  • Medication side-effects
  • Level of cognition
  • Learning style
  • Level of engagement to particular activities
  • Movement variabilities

This can make knowing what to do quite the challenge on your own or as a carer for someone living with ASD. Working with an exercise physiologist can help find the moves, exercises, routines and activities that best suit you or your loved one/s to achieve your/their personal and NDIS goals. 

If you’d like to learn more, feel free to contact one of our friendly team members, or book in online to see us below the references.

References 

Hodges, H., Fealko, C., & Soares, N. (2020). Autism spectrum disorder: definition, epidemiology, causes, and clinical evaluation. Translational pediatrics, 9(Suppl 1), S55–S65. https://doi.org/10.21037/tp.2019.09.09

Must, A., Phillips, S. M., Curtin, C., Anderson, S. E., Maslin, M., Lividini, K., & Bandini, L. G. (2014). Comparison of sedentary behaviors between children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children. Autism, 18(4), 376-384.

Teh, E. J., Vijayakumar, R., Tan, T. X. J., & Yap, M. J. (2022). Effects of physical exercise interventions on stereotyped motor behaviors in children with ASD: A meta-analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 52(7), 2934-2957.

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