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Exercise And Autism: Physical Movement Helps Kids With ASD

Published on 05/20/2024
exercise and autism physical movement helps kids with asd

Everyone knows exercise improves physical well-being, but did you know that children with autism also reap social-emotional benefits? According to autismspeaks.org, “studies have shown that exercise reduces problem behaviors such as repetitive behaviors, off-task behavior, mouthing, self-injury, disruptiveness and aggression in those with autism.”

Exercise And Autism: Physical Therapy Supports Individuals With ASD

Some of the most common side effects associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodiverse diagnoses include poor motor control, balance issues, poor coordination, difficulty managing intense emotions, sleep disorders, and more. All of these can be supported by implementing exercise and intentional movement into the daily calendar. 

This includes personalized exercises provided by physical therapists designed to improve:

  • Muscle coordination
  • Strength
  • Balance
  • Posture

Did you know that the state of Texas has an insurance code mandate specific to autism and physical/behavioral therapy? This mandate guarantees coverage supporting a variety of therapies and support services for children diagnosed with ASD through age nine. After that, depending on the results of assessments, additional coverage may be available.

According to ASHA.org (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association), this coverage includes services like:

  • Physical therapy (Click Here to find a PT specializing in ASD near you).
  • Evaluation and assessment services.
  • Applied behavior analysis, behavior training, and behavior management.
  • Speech therapy.
  • Occupational therapy.
  • Medications or nutritional supplements used to address symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.

Making exercise and physical therapy part of the daily routine helps children by:

  • Making up the gaps in physical development so they learn to sit, crawl, stand, and walk sooner than they would without it.
  • Learn to get dressed, put on shoes, hold a toothbrush or writing implements with better control, etc., all of which fosters independence (and confidence) in and out of the household.
  • Releasing pent-up energy (intensity) that contributes to meltdowns, self-harm, and other forms of aggression.
  • Help them burn physical energy, which can notably support nighttime sleeping.
  • Minimizing the risk of obesity (children with ASD have higher rates of obesity than their peers, putting them at elevated risk for health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease).
  • Reducing anxiety and stress levels.
  • Improving hand/eye coordination so children can more successfully participate in more activities with peers and friends, improving their social-emotional lives.

5 Exercises You Can Do With Your ASD Child

Speak to your pediatrician and ask for a physical therapy (PT) referral if your child isn’t already working with a physical therapist. After the PT’s assessment, they’ll provide exercises specifically oriented toward your child’s needs and goals. 

In the meantime, here are five exercises you can do with your child to support their physical and emotional well-being. Keeping exercise and autism limited to the same five things provides consistency and routine. 

Medicine ball throwdown (strength/balance)

Medicine balls are weighted, providing musculoskeletal strength while helping children develop motor skills and hand/eye coordination. We recommend looking for medicine balls in the 2-, 4-, and 6-pound weights to get started. If this type of exercise is approved/recommended by your PT, the balls may be covered by your insurance, making them free or very low-cost. 

Throwing weighted balls strengthens the core and studies have correlated these types of exercises with stimulating processing centers in the brain responsible for short-term memory retention. 

  • Begin in a standing position, holding a medicine ball in both hands.
  • Raise the ball up overhead with straight arms.
  • Slam the ball down to the ground with as much force as possible.
  • Bend at the knees to pick up the ball and repeat the movement 20 times.
  • You can make this exercise harder by throwing the ball to hit a target or increasing the weight of the ball.

Animal walks/crawls (gross motor coordination)

Imitating animals via walks and crawls is a fun and wonderful way to develop gross motor skills. By doing bear walks, crab crawls, elephant ambles, and so on, your child works on developing different sets of muscles and coordinating core, limbs, and appendages. Do them all forward and backward to optimize the benefits of exercise and autism.

Here’s a helpful video from Awetisminsights showing a handful of different options. You can also choose your child’s favorite animals and create your own crawls, walks, and slides. This is also an opportunity to learn more about the animals you imitate via books or online research.

Exercise via balance, stationary, or pedal bike (balance & motor coordination)

Depending on your child’s abilities and needs, you probably want to start with an indoor exercise bike. Over time, outdoor bike riding may become a favorite family activity and something they can do with friends (albeit with a headband around the ears if your child is sensitive to sound or the feeling of wind in their ears). 

According to autismparentingmagazine.com, recent “...research revealed children with ASD could gain better physical balance when exposed to five weeks of consistent no-pedal balance bicycle training. The research was carried out on eight children with ASD. Their ages ranged from 6 to 10 without any prior experience of riding a bicycle.”

Click the link to download their free book, How to Teach Your Child With Autism to Ride a Bike. Used bikes of all kinds are readily available at local thrift stores, as well as on sites like Marketplace and Craigslist. Consider posting “wanted” ads, which may prompt someone to unload a bike they’re rarely using.

Jumping jacks evolve to star jumps (strength, balance, & motor control)

Jumping jacks are on the list of beginner exercises for a reason. They elevate the heart rate but also require motor coordination to move legs/arms in and out in alternating poses (legs out and arms clap together above the head/legs closed and arms down aligned with the thighs). Once your child can do jumping jacks, move on to star jumps.

Star Jumps are done by starting in a crouched pose on the ground (feet hips-width apart in a squat, knees bent, and arms/elbows in). Then, you jump up (explode) into a star position (legs apart and arms straight out at angles). Jump back to the squat position and repeat.

Here’s a video from Autism Fitness demonstrating how to build up from squats and jumps to the full star jump.

Mirror exercises & Simon says (coordination, body language & social skills)

Children and adults with ASD may struggle with reading and interpreting others’ facial expressions and body language. They may also fail to pay attention to instructions or their playmates’ verbal expressions of boundaries, game rules, or needs. 

Mirror exercises are a wonderful exercise and autism and a way to get away from paper- or screen-based visual cues and use your own face and body. You can also alternate who does the expressions/actions and who is the mirror. 

  • Stand to face a partner, hands by your side.
  • Have your partner start making slow movements with their arms. Try starting with circles and progressing to more complex patterns.
  • When ready, mimic your partner’s movement as if you were looking at yourself in a mirror. For example, if they raise their right arm, you raise your left arm.
  • Try lightly touching their hands for added feedback.
  • Continue this activity for 1-2 minutes. Try incorporating other body parts, such as the head, trunk, and legs. 
  • Repeat 3-5 times.

In time, you can change it up and use mirror time to play Simon Says, which helps them listen to the right cues before moving or changing expressions.

Set Yourself Up For ASD Exercise Success

There are things you can do to set you and your child up for ASD exercise or PT success:

  • Always check in with your pediatrician or behavioral specialist before trying new exercises or games to ensure they’re age/ability-appropriate.
  • Make sure your child is well-rested and hydrated/nourished before doing any exercises.
  • Use rewards-based systems if a child is reluctant to exercise (earning screen time, a favorite snack, etc.).
  • Start slow and build up. If you overdo it, you can undermine the experience. Watch for any signs of stress, fatigue, or thirst. Take rest and hydration breaks as needed.

The Autism Response Team can help you select the best exercises and routines to support your child with ASD’s physical well-being. Contact us at (877) 77-ART-TX to schedule a consultation or assessment. We use applied behavioral analysis (ABA) to carefully craft assessment-based interventions that increase the functioning of individuals with ASD in their daily lives.

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