The Importance of Exercise For Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication and restricted/repetitive behaviours.  Symptoms and the effects of this disorder vary from person to person and for children with ASD, they typically experience more difficulties to interact with the world than other children do. Because of this, many children can develop restrictive/repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests or activities that can negatively impact their health. This can lead to physical inactivity and can impair them from engaging in healthy lifestyle interventions. Furthermore, this can cause motor skill deficits such as poor coordination, a delay in movement skill development and a deficiency in postural control.

So, how can exercise help? Exercise can provide a variety of benefits, but this article will mainly discuss the major three. Firstly, physical activity can prevent the  negative health implications that are associated with physical inactivity (such as the development of cardiovascular or metabolic diseases) and helps manage the symptoms of ASD that a child can experience. Another major impact that exercise has on these children are the improvements in behaviour. Research has shown that moderate to vigorous intensity work can improve the quality of life for children via reducing repetitive and harmful behaviours, which then leads to reducing the motivation to perform this self-harmful behaviour. What’s more is that exercise has been shown to improve cognition with Children with ASD which leads to improvements in academic performance and social interactions with other children.

Lastly, exercise plays a crucial role in  developing  aerobic fitness, muscle strength and coordination. As children with ASD suffer from motor skill impacts, exercise can lead to improvements in gross and fine motor skills which is critical in a child’s development. With improvements in gross and fine motor skills, this improves coordination and balance, which can expand their activity choices and lead to a more active lifestyle.

It is recommended that children with ASD should complete the following;

  • Cardiovascular exercise and strength/resistance training -> every day for a total of 60 minutes
  • Whilst resistance and cardiovascular exercise is critical in their treatment, exercises that focus on movement skills such as running, catching, jumping should be implemented to assist with their motor skill development. In my experience, game like activities that involve these movements have been  more enjoyable, which can lead to increased engagement and consistency with their exercise.

Each program is going to be different for each child, depending on their symptoms and motor/sensory needs, therefore it is highly recommended that a child sees an Accredited Exercise Physiologist for the development of an individualised exercise program.