Autism and Physical Activity

Jennifer MitchellJennifer Mitchell, Parenting

The importance of physical activity on mental and physical health for people is well established across numerous disciplines (psychology, physical education, kinesiology, medicine etc). Physical activity for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is important but may present some challenges.

Children with ASD may have poor muscle tone, coordination, and have difficulties with motor planning. In addition, some children have challenges with activities with a higher degree of organization (such as playing on a team) due to difficulties with perspective taking, social skills or understanding rules. Children may experience anxiety due to all the aforementioned components and may try to avoid activities that they find challenging. However, most children tend to engage in activities that help their bodies feel better or help modulate their emotions or sensory system.

So why is it important?

  • increase muscle tone
  • help with coordination
  • foster confidence and self esteem
  • can be used to create opportunities for socialization and friendships
  • can be beneficial for managing anxiety
  • can help with regulating the nervous system – calm high arousal or ‘wake up’ low arousal
  • cognitive skills, problem solving, help with learning and attentiveness

What can you do?

  • build it into their routine
  • build on their interests and skill level and then slowly add more challenges depending on the child,
  • model for the child and engage with them
  • find programs that help teach certain skills such bike riding, yoga, martial arts or dance
  • find functional activities such as shoveling snow, carrying laundry, sweeping etc., that can provide both physical activity and sensory input
  • utilize yoga or dance DVD’s in your home
  • games such as “Red Light/Green Light”; What time is Mr. Wolf, Red Rover can be games implemented at home
  • trampolines, bike riding, playgrounds, running, swimming, pulling or pushing items all can provide input that help regulate children.

It may be beneficial to get the input of an Occupational (OT) or Physical therapist (PT) for ideas on building and supporting specific skills. OT’s and psychologists can help with the sensory issues children may have in particular environments (outside, noise, smells, lights etc). Psychologists may be able to help with behavior management if needed, breaking down complex tasks and giving ideas on how to help children manage anxiety and build and practice social and perspective taking skills.