Home > Got Questions?, Science, Uncategorized > I know exercise is important. But with all our autism-related therapies, there’s no energy left. Advice appreciated.

I know exercise is important. But with all our autism-related therapies, there’s no energy left. Advice appreciated.

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer comes from Michael Rosanoff, M.P.H., Autism Speaks associate director for public health research and scientific review.

As challenging as it may be for anyone to develop and maintain a physically active lifestyle, the challenges can be amplified for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We are constantly reminded how important it is to teach our kids to make healthy life decisions. But sometimes it can feel like an impossible task when they have other special needs and obstacles.

So it may be no surprise to learn that nearly a third of children with ASD are medically obese. The problem appears to increase with age, with obesity affecting over a third of young adults on the spectrum.

Inadequate physical activity is among the primary reasons for these high rates of obesity. But let’s be honest, getting active can be particularly challenging when a child or adult is also struggling with autism-related issues in areas such as self-control, motivation or physical coordination. And the sights, sounds and tactile aspects of team sports can feel overwhelming for someone with sensory integration issues.

But there’s great payoff in finding physical recreation activities that do work for an individual on the autism spectrum.

Did you know that exercise can decrease the frequency of negative, self-stimulating and self-injurious behaviors? This may be because the highly structured routines and repetitive motions involved in, say, running or swimming can distract from negative self-stimulating and repetitive behaviors. Physical activity can also promote self-esteem and improve mood and attention. For those who can participate in team sports, this type of structured activity can foster social interactions.

This isn’t to say that physical activity can or should replace proven behavioral interventions for ASD. Rather it can enhance their benefits.

For more information on recreational programs and activity tips for children and teens on the autism spectrum, see the physical fitness page in the Health & Wellness section of our website. To learn more about the importance of exercise for individuals with ASD, please see our special science report, “Sports, Exercise, and the Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism.” And please use the comment section to share your experiences. What works and what doesn’t for you, your child or other loved one?

  1. Katie Wright
    March 2, 2012 at 10:10 am

    My son is severely affected. I know what this Mom means- nothing is easy and even going somewhere can be difficult. I live in NYC so we try to walk everywhere possible. In the dead hrs between 6-8 we also hit the playground. Most of the kids are gone and Christian has total free range. Thank God for the Y- we got a family membership and swim every weekend.

    BUT a huge part of the obesity problem is the foods ASD kids eat. Take away all the processed garbage. He or she will feel better, have more energy and fewer mood swings. I wish AS would get more involved in nutritional basics.

  2. March 2, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Microsoft and Autism Have Kinected

    A few studies researching the value of exercise for children with autism have been published in the last twenty-five years. Although the long term benefits of exercise for children with autism specifically have not been adequately explored, we do know that exercise can decrease the amount of self-stimulatory behavior immediately after vigorous exercise (mild exercise had no effect). This is good to know for those working with children with autism since vigorous exercise immediately prior to a one-on-one treatment session with a child may make that child more attentive and therefore easier to work with. The question, though, has always been how to efficiently encourage the child to happily exercise immediately prior to a session?

    Enter the Kinect!

    Thanks to Microsoft, we now have a convenient, vigorous exerciser that hooks onto our T.V. and can be extremely reinforcing to the child with autism (depending upon the game). Now with the Kinect, not only can the child exercise immediately prior to a one-on-one session as a leisure activity, the child can also “work for” the Kinect as a reward during a break. Talk about a powerful tool: a behavioral reinforcer tool that also helps suppress self-stimulatory or stereotypic behavior short term! This is a great example of the unintended, positive consequences of innovation. Children with autism were obviously not a Microsoft target consumer, but they are benefitting greatly from this technological advance!

    Now that we have a convenient new tool in the Kinect, I would very much like to see more research done on the value of exercise for children with autism. Any kinesiologists out there up to the challenge?

  3. Barbara
    March 2, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    My 11 year old son loves sports and keeping busy. I just wish there were more things offered for him. The only thing he does is the special olympics basketball. He loves it. I wish there was soccer, tennis, kickball or something else. He doesn’t do well on the regular team. He use to do baseball but the coach isn’t keeping him interested in the game.

  4. March 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I figured out how to get my 13yr old son to get some exercise, I just grab his controller run. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for him to catch me.

  5. Richie
    March 2, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    I am a 32 year old with ASD (Aspergers). I am a former runner and competitive XC Mountain Bike racer. I agree with some of the points raised above. The last couple of years have been tough for me what with injury and what-not and because of my condition I have found it extremely hard to motivate myself to do any kind of meaningful exercise because my routine has changed (I don’t like change).
    I agree with what the person says above about the games on the TV. I have a Playstation 3 and I do workouts on EA Sports Active 2 (no need for silly hardware like with the Xbox) and if you set your targets well and acheive them it can be very empowering (and believe me it’s no game – it can really get you fit). However, these alone are not enough. We need to let more people with ASD join in with none-ASD peers. The Skateboarding community for example, is very warm and receptive to all people from all backgrounds. If people chose to skate at a park alone fair enough. It can be a solitary sport but it can also be a team thing. There is a great organization in the US called A-Skate that helps children with autism get into skating whether it’s getting a skateboard, having a mentor or finding somewhere to go and shred. Also, I don’t see many athletes with ASD being talked about as role models. I, myself, am hoping to get into motorsport this year and so farI know of no-one in top flight motorsport with ASD. We have a number of athletes with ASD such as Clay Marzo (surfing), Jason McElwain (Basketball), Kyle Weafer (Football) and others. Okay, so they might get a mention on the news because they are treated as some kind of fluke, against the odds case because of their condition but why? These people genuinely earned their stripes doing something they absolutely adore doing and deserve more support from the mainstream as these are the sorts of guys who are leading the way for a new generation of kids with ASD wanting to get into sport.
    Everybody deserves a chance.

  6. Darla
    March 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    My son has been in a soccer program for special needs kids for years. But lately, I’ve been taking him to Zumba class with me. He loves it! I’m blessed with a wonderful instructor who doesn’t charge me and really enjoys having him. Like she says anytime you cross your arms it stimulates the brain plus he’s moving! He doesn’t get many of the steps, but he does his own thing. If he’s not there everyone asks where is he?

  7. Codie
    March 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    We have a very difficult time getting my son to exercise. And his medication makes him eat a lot. With sensory issues he can not participate in team activities or stay focused on an activity for long periods. So we have found dancing is what works well for him. We keep the music low, and his body moving:)

  8. Andrew
    March 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I am 21 yr old with Aspergers Syndrome. I love exercise now and have been working out consistently since this past September. I’ve seen strength gains as I continue to get stronger through circuit training workouts. I began volunteering to help assist lower functioning autistic students exercise. Being in shape starts with proper nutrition which many autistic students lack, because there can be difficulty in cooperation. Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonalds & Carls Jr have not been a part of my nutrition for the last 4 months & I feel energetic instead of the awful chest pains which I experienced when I ate fastfood 3-4times a week. Current struggle is to try and end bad habit of eating high caloric bakery foods although for the past few months I do my best to eat lean meats, veggies, fruits, & whole grains <— another tough challenge due to cost but I'm healthy & this the best I've ever felt in my life. In Apr I start studying for a bachelors degree in kinesiology w concentration Rehabilitation & therapeautic exercise.

  9. March 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    This is why we need more inclusive sports programs, like E-Soccer and E-Karate in the SF Bay Area.

    Check them out if you’re a Bay Area parent of a child with autism (or any other special need).


  10. March 2, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    In response to another comment, I recently read an article in Time Magazine reviewing the Kinect and Wii Fit games. It sounds like there isn’t really a physical benefit to playing these type of video games. Has anyone else researched this? So many of my kids with ASD love these games – at first glance it seems to keep then more active, although parents do try and limit the “screen time” for other reasons…

    • March 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm

      It depends on the game. Some of the games are very physical and make the kids jump a lot! On the other hand, the tour of Disneyland game is fun, but does not work up a sweat. The research on exercise requires “moderate” exercise, and walking isn’t sufficient.

  11. Tyler
    March 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    I know exercise is important. But with all our autism-related therapies, there’s no energy left. How about try less Autism-related therapies. Its not a race to get your kid to normal. Ya’ll should really read Temple Grandin or at least watch the movie. She didn’t talk till she was four and says words are her second language and now she has six books and gets paid to give speeches in front of big crowds. How many award winning books do most of us verbal thinkers got out? I have Aspergers and am a verbal thinker so my mind works so opposite of Temple Grandin its sorta similiar. Back to the original topic, yeah exercise is good for all people Autistic people included, at the very least don’t shelter your child from it. though team sports will probably(not certainly) but probably not be a strength of your child. That doesn’t mean they can’t play sports casually or just run around and play or do a solo sport. Throw them outside away from the TV and they will entertain themselves even if it is not in the same way neurotypical kids are supposed to. For me soccer was actually fun I didn’t make it to the pros, though I might be good enough to get on Americas lousy team lol, but I did enjoy it, soccer is quite a bit simpler to understand and involves less hand eye coordination and more raw endurance which is often actually an Autistic strength.

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