How Does Exercise Influence Autism?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability stemming from differences in brain functioning. Individuals with ASD often demonstrate distinctive communication, interaction, behavioural, and learning patterns compared to the general population. Data from the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) suggests that approximately 1 in 25 children aged seven to fourteen have a primary diagnosis of autism.

Research indicates that individuals with ASD are prone to engage less in physical activity due to delayed motor skill development (Toscano et al., 2022). This tendency can result in social and emotional deficits, presenting challenges that affect their ability to build relationships, maintain self-confidence, and participate in everyday activities.

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Regular physical activity plays a crucial role in enhancing both physical and mental well-being, aiding weight management, and bolstering the capacity to engage in daily activities. Research suggests that individuals with autism who participate in physical activity programs can experience notable improvements in various areas, including social skills, social interactions, communication, and self-control (Zhao and Chen, 2018). Moreover, tailored exercise regimens can significantly enhance quality of life and address specific challenges associated with autism spectrum disorder, including:

Engaging in activities such as walking, running, biking, and playing catch or ball games are essential for fostering large motor movements, which are pivotal for participation in community activities. Individuals with autism may encounter difficulties in these areas due to learning delays. However, targeted tasks that integrate fine and gross motor skills, as prescribed by an Exercise Physiologist, can effectively address these impairments.

Individuals with autism often encounter difficulties in social functioning, including challenges in maintaining relationships, responding to social cues, and expressing themselves effectively. Exercise Physiology sessions offer a unique opportunity to address these challenges by incorporating engaging and safe activities. Through these sessions, individuals can enhance their decision-making skills and improve communication abilities, such as observing, speaking, understanding, and listening. By participating in tailored exercises, individuals with autism can develop vital social skills, fostering greater confidence and proficiency in social interactions.

Many individuals with autism experience sensory processing difficulties, such as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli. Physical activities can help regulate sensory input by providing proprioceptive, vestibular, and tactile stimulation. Activities like swinging, climbing, or jumping can provide deep pressure input, helping individuals regulate their sensory systems and reduce sensory overload or seeking behaviours.

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There is a multitude of exercise options that can greatly benefit individuals with autism. Beginning with as little as 5 to 10 minutes of consistent exercise, such as walking, cycling, or swimming once or twice a week, can make a significant difference. The ultimate aim is to progress towards meeting the Australian recommended exercise guidelines of 150 minutes per week. As Exercise Physiologists, we specialise in crafting personalised and structured programs tailored to your unique needs and objectives.

Written by Uplift Exercise Physiologist, Luke O’Connor

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