Exercise Helps Individuals With Autism

Three friends with their arms around each other's shoulders
November 29th, 2018 0 Comments

Julia Basso – PhD

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that typically emerges before the age of 3. ASD has a variety of symptoms including impaired social interactions, problems with communication, and engagement in repetitive behaviors.  Other issues that can also occur with ASD include depression, anxiety, difficulties in emotional regulation, and problems with paying attention.  Currently, scientists think that ASD results from issues in information processing. These arise from errors in how the brain’s cells are connected and organized, especially in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is an area involved in mood, social behavior, and cognitive functioning.

Approximately 1% of the world population is currently living with autism. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 68 babies born in the United States will be diagnosed with ASD. There are significantly higher levels of ASD in boys than girls (1 in 42 boys versus 1 in 189 girls) (Center for Disease Control, 2014).

Related Article: Building An Autism Friendly Workout Plan

Stay On Task And Engaged

Currently, no known cure exists for ASD, and many of the medications used to treat ASD have serious side effects, including sedation and weight gain.  Because of this, physicians, scientists, and families are turning to alternative treatments.  Exercise is one of them.  Dr. Stephen M. Edelson, executive director of the Autism Research Center, says that “One of the most effective treatments for autistic people is exercise.”

He notes that research is showing that exercise is associated with, “decreases in self-stimulatory behaviors, hyperactivity, aggression, self-injury, and destructiveness” in people with autism.  Along with improvements in motor behaviors, exercise has been shown to help in the classroom.  In children with ASD, exercise has been shown to improve the ability to stay on task and participate in classroom activities as well as increase overall academic performance.  In other words, exercise in children with ASD helps to improve social skills.

The Results Are Undeniable

Kids playing soccerCompared to individuals without ASD, those with ASD spend significantly less time engaging in physical activities (29 versus 50 minutes per day). Additionally, fewer meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (14 versus 29%) (Stanish et al., 2017).  As individuals with ASD often suffer from weight gain and other physical health issues, it is imperative that we encourage these individuals to participate in physical activity.  When it comes to the long-term effects of exercise on ASD symptoms, few longitudinal randomized controlled studies have been conducted.

What has been done, however, suggests that exercise is good for individuals with ASD.  In one study, children with ASD (ages 6 to 9) were exposed to a 10-week water exercise swimming program (Pan, 2010).  Participation in the exercise program (compared to engagement in regular treatment/activity) enhanced aquatic skills. It also decreased antisocial behaviors including spinning, rocking, and delayed echolalia or the verbal repetition of previously heard messages.

When it comes to the long-term effects of exercise on ASD symptoms, few longitudinal randomized controlled studies have been conducted.  What has been done, however, suggests that exercise is beneficial for individuals with ASD.  In one study, children with ASD (ages 6 to 9) were exposed to a 10-week water exercise swimming program (Pan, 2010).  Participation in the exercise program (compared to engagement in regular treatment/activity) enhanced aquatic skills. Additionally, it decreased antisocial behaviors including spinning, rocking, and the verbal repetition of previously heard words.

What Type of Exercise Is Best?

Another more recent study asked whether just a single bout of exercise could be beneficial to improve symptoms in individuals with ASD (Schmitz et al., 2017).  Additionally, the researchers sought to determine which type or “dose” of the workout was best.  They examined four doses of aerobic exercise:

1) a 10-minute low-intensity workout

2) a 10-minute high-intensity workout

3) a 20-minute low-intensity workout

4) a 20-minute high-intensity workout

Before and 60 minutes after exercise or rest, a variety of stereotypic behaviors were assessed.  Excitingly, all exercise regiments decreased stereotypic behaviors, except for 20 minutes of high-intensity exercise, which actually exacerbated stereotypic behaviors.  The most beneficial workout for ameliorating ASD symptoms was the 10-minute low-intensity aerobic workout. In other words, a little exercise goes a long way!

Future high-quality studies will be needed to determine whether exercise can be suggested as an evidence-based treatment in children with ASD (Dillon et al., 2017).  In the meantime, if you have a child or grandchild with autism, get exercising together.  Many children with ASD enjoy sitting at home and engaging in sedentary behaviors such as playing video games.  However, exercise gets you out of the house and enjoying a healthy activity that you can bond over.

Adaptive Learning

Jackie Ceonzo, Executive Director and Founder of SNACK & Friends, Inc (Special Needs Activity Center for Kids) suggests that sports can be learned and enjoyed by children with ASD.  She says that “They just need to be taught in an adapted fashion…For example, in teaching baseball, start with teaching them to run from home plate to first base.  The bases can serve as visual Kids playing in the parkcues.  Maybe add some arrows to point out the right direction to move around the bases.  A sticker, a high five, or other reinforcers may be needed at the end of a successful run.”

If heading outside to exercise seems out of the question, think about combining exercise and video gaming.  Video game systems such as the Wii have a variety of interactive exercise games. Examples include Just Dance, EA Sports Active, Exerbeat, and Zumba Fitness World Party.

You can see a list of the best Wii exercise games here.  Phone apps make exercise into a game. For instance, Zombies, Run is an interactive walking/jogging/running game. It allows you to, “Run in the real world and become a hero in another.”  The idea is that you are one of the few remaining souls who has survived a zombie attack, and you are running to “one of humanity’s last remaining outposts.”

Along the way, you collect supplies, rescue survivors, and get exercise!  There is even an app that teaches individuals with autism to exercise, called ExerciseBuddy.  As another idea, think about measuring heart rate as you engage in a workout. Tracking heart rate from workout to workout could serve as an additional game.

Related Article: FUNtervals – Exercise Intervals For Children


In conclusion, even a single 10-minute bout of low-intensity aerobic exercise can help improve symptoms in individuals with ASD.  However, if 10 minutes is initially too much, start with half that and build from there.  As fitness increases, you can try exercising in 10-minute bouts throughout the day to help boost the benefits.  Above all, make exercise fun.  Getting fit is a game that the whole family can enjoy!


Center for Disease Control (2014):  https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.

Dillon, S. R., Adams, D., Goudy, L., Bittner, M., & McNamara, S. (2016). Evaluating exercise as evidence-Based Practice for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in public health4.

Pan, C. Y. (2010). Effects of water exercise swimming program on aquatic skills and social behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism14(1), 9-28.

Schmitz, O. S., Mcfadden, B. A., Golem, D. L., Pellegrino, J. K., Walker, A. J., Sanders, D. J., & Arent, S. M. (2017). The Effects of Exercise Dose on Stereotypical Behavior in Children with Autism. Medicine and science in sports and exercise49(5), 983-990.

Stanish, H. I., Curtin, C., Must, A., Phillips, S., Maslin, M., & Bandini, L. G. (2017). Physical Activity Levels, Frequency, and Type Among Adolescents with and Without Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders47(3), 785-794.

TAGGED : , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Virginia Davies, CEO
“We the people” must come together and make some real change. Read this message from our CEO and social entrepreneur, Virginia Davies.