Do Children With Autism Have the Same Exercise Needs?

By Amber Keefer
Jumping on a trampoline is therapeutic for an autistic child.
Jumping on a trampoline is therapeutic for an autistic child.

Exercise is necessary for a child’s physical and emotional health, but regular physical activity offers additional benefits for kids with autism. Stephen M. Edelson, director of the Autism Research Institute, points out that exercise is one of the most effective treatments for people with autism. Although most children get some amount of physical activity from playing with other children, that isn’t always the case for a child with an autism spectrum disorder.

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Exercise

Children with autism can have low muscle tone, slow reaction times and problems with fine-motor control. Many have sensory problems, poor hand-eye coordination and poor bilateral coordination skills. For these reasons, exercise is an effective therapeutic intervention for autistic children but one that is often overlooked, according to Skipping, jumping on a trampoline or bouncing on a large exercise ball can improve your child’s sense of position in space. Swings, rocking chairs and merry-go-rounds are therapeutic as well. Like dancing and doing somersaults, these activities can improve coordination and balance. Activities such as swimming often help a child with autism who has trouble learning how to ride a bike or other activities that require sequences of movements. Hitting a ball with a bat improves hand-eye coordination.

Exercise and Behavior

Recent scientific reviews found that exercise programs improved social functioning and decreased aggression and stereotypical behaviors in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, according to Exercise increases the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus -- an area of the brain that affects attention, impulse control and empathy. Previous studies have found that the hippocampus and amygdala of individuals with autism spectrum disorder are smaller. Aerobic exercise needs to be vigorous and occur on at least three days of the week to be beneficial.

Exercise and Weight

According to the Autism Speaks website, 19 percent of autistic children are overweight compared to 16 percent of neurotypical children -- those who aren't on the autism spectrum. Another 36 percent are at risk for weight problems. Research suggests that less participation in physical activity generally is the reason why more autistic children are overweight. Children with autism spectrum disorder often are less involved in physical activities because of problems with motor function, sensitivity to environment stimuli and difficulty with social interaction.

Exercise and Stereotypical Behaviors

Research findings show aerobic exercise decreases the frequency of self-stimulating behaviors common among children with autism, according to the Autism Speaks website. Studies that involved aerobic exercises such as jogging, swimming and horseback riding showed a decrease in stereotypical behaviors that can interfere with a child’s learning and social interactions. Researchers theorize the routines of exercise programs that involve repetitive behaviors similar to those associated with autism spectrum disorder might be the reason. The movements some types of exercise require might replace a child’s negative self-stimulating behaviors.

About the Author

Amber Keefer has more than 25 years of experience working in the fields of human services and health care administration. Writing professionally since 1997, she has written articles covering business and finance, health, fitness, parenting and senior living issues for both print and online publications. Keefer holds a B.A. from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. in health care management from Baker College.