Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder. It is associated with impaired social ability, difficulty interacting with others and a tendency to engage in repetitive or unusual behaviors. People with ASD may experience sensitivity to certain stimuli like texture, light, and noise.
Autism spectrum disorder can vary in severity and presentation as it occurs on a continuum. ASD affects roughly 1 out of every 68 children and is more common (4x) in males. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children with ASD may also experience trouble sleeping and insomnia.
As a result of interrupted or poor quality sleep, parents and caregivers also suffer from sleep trouble. Because ASD is so common, there is a lot of research looking for opportunities to lessen some of the symptoms and multiple conditions associated with the ASD. I am excited to discuss research that examines using a training program for autism to study the effects of exercise on social behaviors, sleep and athletic/coordination abilities in children with ASD.
Related Article: Exercise Helps Individuals With Autism
Training Program Affects On Training Behavior
Research conducted by Pan (2010) examined the effect of water exercise swimming program (WESP) on both water skills and social behaviors in children with ASD. Participants were 16 children between ages 6-9 who were diagnosed with autism. The participants varied slightly in their diagnosis with 8 participants considered mild or high-functioning and 8 participants were identified as having Asperger’s syndrome. Participants in the training program for autism were divided into two groups.
The first group was placed in water exercise swim program (WESP). It lasted for 10 weeks and then they did their normal treatment/ activity for 10 weeks. The second group spent the first 10 weeks in regular treatment followed by 10 weeks of WESP treatment. The children were tested for aquatic ability and social skills three separate times.
- First- at baseline upon study entry.
- Second- after the first 10 weeks whether they had regular treatment/ activity or WESP treatment.
- Third- after the second 10-week period.
WESP included warmup activities, small group instruction, group games, and activities and cool down. The Humphries Assessment of Aquatic Readiness (HAAR) measured mental adjustment, introduction to the water environment, rotations, balance and control and independent movement in the water. Participants were also measured on social behavior skills including social competence, peer relations, self-management, academic behavior and antisocial behavior like irritability, aggressive/defiant behavior.
WESP treatment led to statistically significant improvement in aquatic ability. More interestingly, there was also a meaningful effect of WESP on academic and antisocial behavior such that following the 10-week WESP treatment, participants had higher scores for academic behavior and social competence and lower scores for hostile/irritable and antisocial behavior.
Training Program Affects On Sleep
In addition, a second research study conducted by Brand et al. (2015) examined the effect of aerobic exercise on sleep behavior and motor skills in children with an autism spectrum disorder. Participants in Brand et al.’s study were 10 children, age 7-13 who qualified as having an autism spectrum disorder.
Participants attended three training sessions per week for three weeks. During each of the sessions, the children participated in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. First on a bicycle, then followed by 30 minutes of coordination training. This training included throwing a ball, balancing, jumping etc.
EEG analysis measured sleep 4 times-
- Start of the study
- The conclusion of the study
- One night during the study following a day where the participant engaged in the exercise
- A night during the study following a day with no physical activity.
Sleep devices assessed total sleep time, sleep efficiency, slow wave sleep, REM sleep, sleep onset delay and a number of times waking up after sleep onset. Parents/caregivers measured the child’s sleep subjectively using the Insomnia Severity Index. This includes measuring difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and worrying about sleep. Finally, researchers examined the mood state of children in the morning following physical exercise compared to morning following no exercise.
Not surprisingly, physical exercise intervention improved motor skills over time.
Unfortunately, there was no significant effect of a training program for autism on subjective sleep or objective sleep over time. That is, sleep scores before and after the study were similar. However, there was a significant effect of physical exercise on objective sleep on nights following physical exercise such that children slept better following nights with physical activity. Additionally, sleep logs revealed improved mood in mornings following physical activity.
Related Article: Low Intensity, Short Workouts Benefit Individuals With ASD
In conclusion, Pan and Brand et al.’s research is important because it provides support for the use of a training program for autism. In other words, for children with an autism spectrum disorder, exercise can improve social behavior, mood, and sleep. This research is also important because parents and caregivers of children with ASD often suffer from poor sleep as a result of their child’s insomnia.
As such, improving sleep quality and amount for children with ASD would also help caregivers. They would also get a better night sleep. Future research may explore more long-term intervention as the present research did not find a significant effect of physical exercise over time. It is possible a longer amount of time the children exercise may produce more long lasting and sustainable results.
Brand, S., Jossen, S., Holsboer-Trachsler, E., Gerber, M. (2015) Impact of aerobic exercise on sleep and motor skills in children with autism spectrum disorders – a pilot study. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 11, 1911-1920.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Retrieved January 29, 2017 from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
The National Institute of Mental Health. Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved January 29,2017 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml
Pan, C., (2010) Effects of water exercise swimming program on aquatic skills and social behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders. Sage Publications and the National Autistic Society, 9-28.
Young, S., Furgai, K. (2016) Exercise effects in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a short review. Autism Open Access, 6, 1-2.