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Parents and caregivers often wonder whether exercise and outdoor play may be beneficial for their autistic child. Research shows that they are! The CDC recommends exercise and activity for all children, in addition, research has shown that there is sufficient evidence that physical exertion, motor skills, or mindful movements have positive effects on children with autism (Steinbrenner et al., 2020).

 

The National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team found that exercise and movement are beneficial for autistic children aged 3 to 18.

 

Therapeutic interventions that incorporate exercise, movement, and outdoor play can improve a wide range of skills and areas of functioning, including:

 

  • Communication skills
  • Social skills
  • Cognitive functioning
  • School readiness
  • Academic/pre-academic abilities
  • Adaptive/self-help
  • Interfering behavior reduction
  • Motor skill development (Steinbrenner et al., 2020)

 

Understanding the potential impact that exercise can have on a child is essential. This knowledge can empower parents to advocate for physical activity to be incorporated into their child’s therapies and to structure their child’s day to maximize physical activity.

 

This guide will explore exercise options for children with autism. As always, what works for one child may not work for the next. As such, individualization is key.

 

What is the Best Exercise for Autism?

Every child has individual preferences and abilities. Therefore, the best exercise or movement activity for a child with autism is whichever one they enjoy and can participate in comfortably. The key is to find activities that align with their interests and abilities while providing accommodations to support increased engagement.

 

Exercise has many health benefits, including improved sleep, mental well-being, and a reduced risk of chronic health conditions (Ruegseggar & Booth, 2018). Despite the immense benefits, rates of physical activity are lower in children with autism compared to their neurotypical peers (Sefen et al., 2020). Many potential barriers to exercising exist, such as sensory aversions and motor skill delays. However, there are numerous exercises that children with autism commonly enjoy.

 

While not an exhaustive list, consider the following ideas for movement activities for your child.

 

  • Obstacle course
  • Yoga
  • Animal walks (e.g., frog jumps, bear walks, crab walk)
  • Swimming
  • Martial arts
  • Ball play
  • Bike or scooter riding
  • Dancing
  • Gymnastics
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Climbing (e.g., jungle gym, climbing blocks, rock wall climbing)
  • Running, walking, or hiking
  • Playing on playground equipment
  • Jumping rope
  • Hopscotch

 

What are the best outdoor activities for autistic children?

The options are endless! Many previously mentioned exercises can be enjoyed outside, offering children fresh air and more space to move. The outdoor environment is also excellent for incorporating messy, sensory play.

 

Here are a few more ideas for outdoor play activities.

 

  • Water play—Water tables, pool, slip-n-slide
    Note: Water activities must be closely supervised
  • Nature scavenger hunt
  • Sensory bins
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Sand or dirt box
  • Wheelbarrow race
  • Gardening
  • Swings

 

As sensory processing difficulties are common with autistic children, they may benefit from activities that add proprioceptive input. If your child attends occupational therapy, you may have heard this referred to as “heavy work” (Blanche et al., 2012). Obstacle courses, jungle gyms, and other activities that work the large muscle groups are examples of heavy work.

What is the Best Sport for an Autistic Child?

Often, parents hold off on registering their autistic child for sports, especially structured team sports. The reasons for this reluctance are multifaceted. There may be safety concerns, challenges taking turns or following directions, or a number of other factors. However, there are many options for children with autism to engage in sports, whether casually or as part of a structured league. Local communities often have adaptive sports options for children with disabilities like the Little League Challenger League. Other options are to see if the sports team will allow an ABA therapist attend practice and games to assist with following directions and participation.

 

What Sports Should Children with Autism Stay Away From?

There are no sports that are exclusively “off-limits” for children with autism. Every child may enjoy and excel at different sports. Parents should be encouraged to try many different sports with their children to help them explore their interests and find physical activities they may be passionate about.

 

Considerations when choosing a sport

While children with autism can enjoy and do well with any sport, there are several considerations when choosing a sport for your child to try.

 

Sensory sensitivities—Children with autism tend to experience the sensory world differently. Their unique sensory experiences should be considered when choosing sports and other activities. Avoid activities that would be overstimulating or under stimulating.

 

Pay attention to the sensory experience each sport would bring about, including:

 

  • Sounds—If your child is sensitive to loud noises, avoid sports with large crowds and lots of sound.
  • Physical contact—Consider your child’s preferences for or avoidance of physical contact. Contact sports like football may not be preferred for a child who finds physical contact aversive.
  • Textures of uniforms and equipment—Another sensory processing consideration is the tactile feelings of the sport’s equipment and uniform. If your child hates tight clothing, a sport like gymnastics, where leotards are worn, may not be the best choice

 

Motor skill and coordination—Sports are an excellent way to develop gross motor skills. However, trying a sport that isn’t aligned with your child’s motor abilities may not be enjoyable.

 

Social interactions—Team sports will inevitably require interactions with peers, coaches, and opponents. Some children with autism may prefer solo sports with less social engagement. Others, however, may thrive on the opportunity to interact with peers.

 

Interest and motivation—Involve your child in the decision-making as much as possible. Explore sports that interest them and align with their passions and motivations.

 

Skills and behaviors—Consider which sports are the best fit based on your child’s abilities. For example, if they have not mastered turn-taking, group or team sports may be much more challenging. Also, with safety as a top priority, consider whether various sports may be more likely than others to evoke interfering behaviors (i.e., aggressions, self-injurious behavior).

 

What Outdoor Activities Should Children with Autism Stay Away From?

Children with autism can engage in any outdoor activities that fit their interests and abilities. Because people with autism are at an increased risk of wandering (Wiggins et al., 2020), drowning (Guan & Li, 2017), and accidental injury (Guan & Li, 2017), extra precautions should be taken in outdoor spaces.

 

Safety Precautions for Outside Play

Getting outside and exploring the natural world can be great for a child’s physical health and mental well-being. However, safety should be top priority.

 

Parents and caregivers should consider the following safety precautions during outdoor play.

 

  • A fenced-in yard
  • Close supervision
  • GPS tracking
  • Gated-off pools
  • Safety gear (i.e., helmets) during wheeled activities such as bike riding and scooters

 

Conclusion: Does Exercise and Outdoor Play Help Children with Autism

Research supports the benefits of incorporating physical activity, movement, and outdoor exploration into daily activities. Exercise interventions may lead to improved communication, social, and motor skills, as well as cognitive abilities and overall well-being. With careful consideration of safety precautions and individualized preferences, children with autism can enjoy the many benefits of exercise and outdoor play.

 

References

Blanche, E. I., Reinoso, G., Chang, M. C., & Bodison, S. (2012). Proprioceptive processing difficulties among children with autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 66(5), 621–624. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2012.004234

Guan, J., & Li, G. (2017). Characteristics of unintentional drowning deaths in children with autism spectrum disorder. Injury Epidemiology, 4(1), 32. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40621-017-0129-4

Guan, J., & Li, G. (2017). Injury mortality in individuals with autism. American Journal of Public Health, 107(5), 791–793. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.303696

Sefen, J. A. N., Al-Salmi, S., Shaikh, Z., AlMulhem, J. T., Rajab, E., & Fredericks, S. (2020). Beneficial use and potential effectiveness of physical activity in managing autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 14, 587560. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2020.587560

Ruegsegger, G. N., & Booth, F. W. (2018). Health benefits of exercise. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 8(7), a029694. https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a029694

Steinbrenner, J. R., Hume, K., Odom, S. L., Morin, K. L., Nowell, S. W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N. S., Yücesoy-Özkan, S., & Savage, M. N. (2020). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team.

Wiggins, L. D., DiGuiseppi, C., Schieve, L., Moody, E., Soke, G., Giarelli, E., & Levy, S. (2020). Wandering among preschool children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics : JDBP, 41(4), 251–257. https://doi.org/10.1097/DBP.0000000000000780

 

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