What Are the Benefits of Exercise for Children with Autism?

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  Updated: January 19, 2022

Today’s Dietitian points out that physical activity has a wealth of benefits for children with autism. Children who exercise are less likely to be overweight or obese, enjoy better sleep quality, and have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Regular exercise also improves motor skills, social skills, and school-related functioning in children with ASD while decreasing repetitive movements, aggression, and behavioral problems. REACH Educational Services invites you to read on for details.

Barriers to physical fitness for children with autism

Children with ASD tend to be less active than their peers. Autism Speaks notes that barriers to physical activity include motor skill limitations, medication side effects, communication difficulties, and a lack of appropriate resources and support. Children with autism also tend to have poor strength, endurance, balance, and visual-motor control compared to children not on the spectrum.

How much physical activity is enough?

Consistency is key when it comes to exercise for children with ASD. In studies examining exercise and autism, long-term fitness participation is associated with greater improvements to ASD symptoms and behaviors.

Three hours of physical activity per day is recommended for children under five. However, it’s important to understand that exercise doesn’t have to happen all at once. Breaking physical activity into shorter chunks throughout the day works toward the three-hour goal without overwhelming children and caregivers.

Tips for getting started with autism-friendly exercise

A supportive environment and plenty of positive reinforcement, starting in the home, are key when introducing a child with ASD to new exercises. Children with autism may be averse to typical play settings like playgrounds which are often loud, unpredictable, and highly social. Parents can increase children’s comfort with physical activity by:

  • 1. Establishing a regular and predictable fitness routine.
  • 2. Seeking out autism-friendly fitness settings and facilitators.
  • 3. Using pictures and visual aids to supplement instruction and reinforce routines.
  • 4. Offering a variety of physical activities to choose from.
  • 5. Starting simple and increasing complexity over time.

Technology is an excellent tool for developing reinforcing fitness habits in children with ASD. Autism-friendly exercise videos, instructional fitness apps, and “exergaming” video games serve as visual aids to support fitness instruction and increase independent performance. These tools also allow children to exercise at home in a familiar and predictable environment.

Parents, in particular, will benefit from the “Improving the Lives of Individuals with Autism through Exercise” video series from the U.S. National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability. This video series includes helpful tips and information on introducing children with autism to exercise. Other leading video series include children’s yoga, sing-a-long exercises, and PE sessions with extra time to demonstrate exercises.

Touchscreen devices that allow interaction are especially beneficial for engaging young children in exercise. While not a replacement for adult supervision, bumper phone cases and screen protectors help young children use tablets, smartphones, and other touchscreen devices safely.

Fitness activities for children with autism

How can parents guide children with ASD towards a physically active lifestyle? Here are seven fitness ideas to get families started with autism-friendly exercise.

  • 1. Walking is an excellent form of exercise that takes minimal planning or equipment. Listening to kid-friendly music makes walking more engaging for children.
  • 2. Walks are also an opportunity to encourage children to move in different ways. Running, jumping, hopping, and skipping enhance motor skills and coordination.
  • 3. Indoors, children can dance and move to music. Vigorous dancing gets kids’ heart rate up to meet cardiovascular exercise needs.
  • 3. Basic exercises like mirror exercises, jumping tasks, bear crawls, and other full-body exercises improve body awareness and coordination. 
  • 4. For moms, it’s important to stay comfy while you’re structuring exercise, so look into clothes that are soft, flexible and durable
  • 5. Ball games are another great tool for building coordination and visual-motor control. Examples include throwing and passing a ball or hitting balls with a bat or racket.
  • 6. Relaxing exercises are also important for children with ASD, says ParentMap. Yoga, stretching, and body scan activities promote physical activity while creating a calming space for children.
  • 7. Some children with autism are drawn to water. Swimming and water exercise build strength and endurance while teaching water safety.

Physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. While children with autism face barriers to exercise, there’s a lot parents can do to encourage an active lifestyle from an early age. Use these ideas to introduce your child with ASD to exercise in a safe, supportive, and positive environment.

REACH Educational Services connect teachers, parents and students by creating interest-based, one-on-one and small-group learning experiences via tutoring and numerous educational support. For educational support, you can contact us at 803-757-0156.

Meet The Author

My name is Jenny Wise I am a Special Educator. I am a stay-at-home parent to 4 beautiful children. My husband and I made the decision to home-educate when our oldest was four years old. During this journey, we have expanded our family, and faced many challenges along the way. With every challenge, we have experienced great rewards.

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