What is Autism?
Autism is a developmental condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, and experiences their surroundings. People living with autism often find certain social, emotional and communication skills challenging, and may demonstrate restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours. Every autistic person is different from every other, and it is estimated that 1 in 70 Australians are on the autism spectrum.
Research shows children with autism have been found to have lower physical activity levels than those without autism. This may be due to impairments in motor abilities, balance, sensory skills and gait which may affect participation in everyday activities, and reduce overall self confidence. Furthermore, research demonstrates approximately 50% of older individuals with an intellectual disability, including autism, do not reach the recommended physical activity guidelines. Therefore people living with autism have an increased risk of developing other chronic health conditions such as obesity due to a very sedentary lifestyle.
How does Exercise Help?
Most people recognise that exercise provides numerous health benefits and minimizes health risks associated with inactivity. However, a targeted exercise program can further enhance quality of life and produce significant improvements in areas associated with common autism spectrum difficulties. These include:
Exercise physiology sessions provide a fun and safe setting that gives autistic children and adults the opportunity to interact non verbally and verbally with others as well as reduce social isolation. Physical activity games can introduce teamwork skills, decision making opportunities and the importance of understanding, observing, talking and listening to others.
Learning new skills such as throwing, catching, kicking and jumping may improve an individual’s ability to participate in community activities and therefore enhance overall confidence, self efficacy and independence.
Poor visual motor coordination and the lack of awareness of one’s own body in space can be barriers for those on the autism spectrum to enhance these fundamental motor skills and therefore limit their activity choices. Hence, practicing specific gross and fine motor coordination tasks and dynamic balance activities prescribed by an Exercise Physiologist can be used to address these movement impairments and the individual’s needs.
People on the autism spectrum may experience cognitive and behavioural impairments such as difficulty concentrating, attention problems, self-injuring behaviours and intellectual delays. Research suggests exercises such as jogging, and hydrotherapy have been shown to reduce aggressive or self-injurious behaviours, improve academic responding and being able to stay on task. A 2018 study demonstrated moderate to vigorous exercise sessions twice a week for 48 weeks resulted in reduced repetitive behaviours for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. This supports previous research over the past decade that highlights vigorous sports such as basketball, running, biking and gymnastics are used to decrease stereotypical behaviours.
How do I start Exercising?
Starting a new routine may seem daunting for those living on the autism spectrum. That is why it is suggested to start in short bouts of physical activity broken up throughout the day.
Going for a walk or engaging in a physical activity you find enjoyable is a good place to start to set up an exercise routine that is sustainable. For example, start with 5-10min of activity a few days a week and then gradually build from there. The recommended daily exercise dose is 60min of cardiovascular and strength/resistance training (supervised by a professional).
If you know someone or you are living with autism, consult an exercise physiologist for a tailored exercise plan to help reach your health, fitness, and community participation goals and improve overall quality of life.