Overall public awareness of autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased dramatically over the past decade. This is partly because of public awareness campaigns but mostly a result of the dramatically rising incidence in the United States and throughout the world. Most people today know someone whose life is affected by autism in some way. According to the most recent estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with ASD, and the disorder is nearly 5 times more common among boys (1 in 54) than among girls (1 in 252) (11,12).
ASD is a general term for a group of developmental disabilities that cause significant difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and behavior (5,9). Disabilities that fall under the diagnostic category of ASD include autism, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified and Asperger's syndrome. According to some resources, ASD also includes Rett's syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder (5,9). ASD is usually diagnosed in childhood and is a lifelong condition. Aside from the characteristic difficulties mentioned above, individuals with ASD may also present with other issues and comorbidities, including impaired motor coordination, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, sensory processing disorder (SPD), seizure disorder, and intellectual disability (1,22,37). Because of the spectral nature of ASD, clinical presentation varies widely among individuals affected by the disorder.
IMPORTANCE OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND FITNESS IN CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS WITH AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER
Like their typically developing peers, children and teenagers with ASD benefit greatly from physical activity. Physical activity is essential in maintaining health and well-being, and preventing childhood obesity. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years (7). In 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese (28,31). Current estimates indicate that 17% of children and adolescents aged 2–19 years are obese (8).
There is evidence that obesity rates are even greater in children with ASD (38,39), and some research indicates that children with autism are 40% more likely to be obese than children without autism (13). Childhood obesity is the result of eating too many calories and not getting enough physical activity (7), and this holds true for children with ASD (21). Children and teenagers with ASD, however, are at greater risk for becoming overweight or obese because of the unique challenges they face that limit their opportunities and abilities to exercise. Social and communication impairments, behavioral issues, sensory processing difficulties, and motor incoordination may preclude participation in school-based or recreational physical activities. Obesity rates are greater for older children with autism because recent studies indicate that they are significantly more physically inactive than younger children (21), and this can have important ramifications as these children transition into adulthood, such as the development of diabetes or other obesity-related health issues.
One of the biggest barriers to physical activity for youth with ASD is the primary social-behavioral impact of the disorder. Individuals with ASD have difficulty interacting with peers because of poor social skills (29). They often fail to recognize or understand social cues and lack verbal and nonverbal communication. They often engage in repetitive and self-stimulatory behaviors, which interfere with the activity at hand, and may distract others around them. These children often have difficulty engaging with their peers in unstructured physical play at school, on playgrounds, or the backyard. Difficulty with social interactions and a lack of cooperative skills impact group dynamics, and children with ASD often require social cues for appropriate interactions (27). They may also be prohibited from participating in organized recreational sports because of staff concerns regarding behaviors, or staffs' inability to deal with them effectively.
Sensory processing impairments pose another barrier to effective participation in physical activity. The presence of sensory processing disorder (SPD) in most children and adults with ASD is well documented, although the severity of symptoms varies greatly (19,20). SPD is an umbrella term for a range of difficulties (or dysfunctions) in sensory functioning (23), and a detailed discussion of the complexities and varying presentations of the disorder are beyond the scope of this article. In very simple terms, sensory processing is the ability of the central nervous system to process information gathered through the senses, integrate it with information stored in the brain from previous experience, make a meaningful response and self-regulate. There are 3 components of sensory functioning: sensory responsiveness, sensory reactivity, and arousal (23).
For the purposes of this article, the discussion will be limited to a brief description of sensory responsiveness and reactivity as observed in youth with ASD. Sensory reactivity is a physiological response to sensory information in the environment. Some individuals may be overreactive to sensory stimuli, including sound, touch, smell, movement, and visual information. Some individuals may be underreactive. Sensory responsiveness is the observable behavior caused by sensory input. Although simplified, a good example to illustrate sensory overresponsive behavior is when a child covers his ears and cries in response to a sound, such as a ringing phone or school bell. The reaction does not match the intensity of the stimuli. Aside from overt sensory responses, SPD can also manifest in other ways, such as self-stimulatory behaviors (e.g., hand flapping, twirling, rocking), sensory avoidance behaviors, difficulty with attention and focus, poor motor planning, difficulty in organizing and sequencing tasks, difficulty in following verbal instructions, low motivation, poor self-esteem, and difficulty in self-monitoring. Each of these can impact an individual's ability to perform physical activities and participate in group sports.
Bullying by peers is also a potential barrier to participation in group physical activities for this population (17). Decreased motor skills, poor social communication, and low self-confidence can cause these children to be targeted for bullying during group physical activity, which can further magnify the social impact of the disorder. Peer bullying not only facilitates physical inactivity, it further socially isolates youth with ASD.
THE BENEFITS OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
The benefits of physical activity for youth with ASDs reach beyond those already well documented for the nondisabled population. As with all youth, physical activity at recommended levels improves health and well-being, improves physical fitness, and prevents comorbidities including obesity. There is additional evidence that children with ASD experience other positive effects from exercise, including improved motor function and exercise capacity (35), reduced self-stimulatory behaviors such as rocking, spinning, and hand flapping (34,40,47), and improved self-esteem, mood, and attention (32,36). Even more exciting is the positive impact of exercise on social interaction and participation. The positive effects of physical activity and exercise mentioned above can ultimately lead to improved ability and desire to participate in peer group physical activities and sports. This type of engagement can improve social and communication skills, improve self-esteem, reduce depression, reduce social stress, and facilitate self-management skills (24,33). Improved endurance, strength, and motor skills can give these youth self-confidence to participate in community/recreational peer activities, an important step toward independence as an adult.
The general guidelines for exercise training for youth with ASD are basically the same as with all youth. The CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services developed National Physical Activity Guidelines recommending that children get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day, which may occur in bouts of >10 minutes (10,42). Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, however, should be performed at least 3 days per week.
Physical activity should also include muscle strengthening activities (e.g., gymnastics, push-ups, or free weights) (10). When planning strengthening activities, professionals should consider strength and conditioning guidelines for children as outlined by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (30). A well-rounded program should also emphasize core strengthening activities, as a strong core can facilitate improved balance and coordination required for higher-level motor skills (3,4,18).
Although exercise testing guidelines are basically the same as for adults, it is important to remember that children's physiological response to exercise differs from adults. These are described clearly in American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (2). Aerobic fitness in this population may be difficult to determine because of the disorder's impact on social understanding, motivation, motor function, and focus. The following tests are relatively easy to administer and serve as a baseline to mark progress:
- ½ or 1-mile walk/run.
- 3-, 6-, or 12-minute walk test.
- 600-yard walk/run.
Professionals can use the ACSM FITT model to guide program design and determine frequency, intensity, time, and type of exercise (2). As with all children, it is helpful to include activities, props, games, and music to motivate and encourage participation.
Although exercise testing and training guidelines are the same for children with ASD and healthy nondisabled children, there are some special considerations and strategies to make exercise training more successful in this population.
As discussed, the 3 main characteristics of ASD are impairments in social interaction, communication, and behavior. These are the key areas to be aware of when engaging individuals with ASD in physical activity or recreational activities (27). Strategies to address these key areas are discussed in the following section. Two other important considerations when working with this population are the presence of seizure disorder and impaired cognition.
Approximately one-third of children with ASD have seizure disorders (16,45,46). Fitness and health professionals working with this population must identify the presence of seizures and whether they are controlled through medication. This information should be gathered from the family when obtaining health history, medical clearance, and consent to participate in a physical exercise program. Parents may be fearful that physical exertion will trigger a seizure. Most children with medically controlled seizures, however, can safely participate in physical activity. The literature is inconclusive regarding the impact of physical exertion on seizures. Some studies report cases in which children may have exercise-related seizures (26,41), whereas other studies suggest reduced incidence of seizures with increased physical activity (14,15,25). Regardless, child-specific precautions regarding physical exertion and seizures must be discussed with the physician and family before program initiation. Professionals must also be aware that some antiseizure medications may alter exercise response and even cause impairments that impact balance and gait. Although children with seizures can engage in most physical activities, certain activities, such as swimming, must be monitored for safety. Activities that have a potential for impact injury to the head should also be avoided, although evidence for increased seizures from head trauma is inconclusive (6).
Another important consideration for working with this special population is the child's cognitive status, which can impact ability to follow instructions, level of independence, and overall safety to the child and those around him. Health and fitness professionals must determine the appropriate level of supervision needed for a child or teen with ASD based on cognitive level, as well as the age of the child. The use of simple instructions and visual aids may be helpful in obtaining child understanding and improve their ability to perform the exercises correctly and safely. The special considerations for children with ASD, as discussed above, are presented in (Table 1).
PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS AND STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS
There are several ways fitness and health professionals can implement strategies to improve motivation, reduce characteristic behaviors, improve outcomes, and obtain long-term compliance to exercise programs in children and teenagers with ASD. These children are each unique in their presentation of characteristic behaviors and specific challenges they face when it comes to participating in physical activity and exercise programs. Professionals should evaluate each child's specific needs through observation, as well as consultation with family members and other health providers who work with the child, to design an individualized program. Each of the following suggestions may not apply to each child with ASD, and it is up to the professional to determine which strategies are appropriate for the child. Program planning is also a process, often through trial and error, and modifications based on the child's response. Nevertheless, with careful, flexible planning, this population can be successfully trained and benefit greatly.
SPDs and associated behaviors can impact learning, attention, and physical performance. Vigorous aerobic activities, such as running, jumping, biking, and swimming, provide proprioceptive sensory input. Intense proprioceptive input can provide short-term reduction of sensory behaviors and improve attention and focus. Begin an exercise routine with these types of activities before initiating exercises that require more control and focus. For example, have the child jog on a treadmill for 20 minutes before working on resistance machines or sport-specific skills like throwing and catching.
Anxiety, repetitive behaviors, and a desire for rigid/predictable schedules are common in individuals with ASD. Provide children with a detailed schedule of activities at the start of each session, as well as a prescribed exercise routine to follow at home. This external structure helps alleviate anxiety by letting the child know what's next, and improves cooperation and motivation. It can also facilitate self-management in older children. Written instructions may be sufficient for higher functioning children; however, using pictures along with brief written instructions can improve understanding in younger or more impaired children. For example, if incorporating free weights or resistance machines in an exercise program, include an image of the machine or a picture/video clip of the child performing the exercise correctly using the equipment or weights. Schedules for exercise routines can also be incorporated into a visual calendar the child can keep and refer to at home.
Several behavioral management techniques and motivational strategies have evidence to support their success in children with ASD (43,44). One well-documented approach, most applied by behavioral analysts, is a positive reinforcement system. In this system, extrinsic reinforcers are used to reward desired behaviors. Over time, and with progress, the rewards are delayed and eventually faded until the child can manage his own behavior and/or feel motivated by intrinsic rewards, such as a feeling of accomplishment. Incorporating an extrinsic positive reward system is an effective strategy for achieving compliance with an exercise program. Discuss appropriate and meaningful rewards with the parent or caregiver. Rewards can be immediate or delayed, based on the level of the child. Examples of reinforcers and a description of when and how to apply them are presented in Table 2. No matter what type of reward system the child requires, provide consistent and frequent positive praise to let the child know exactly what they did well (e.g., “I like the way you moved on to the next machine without a reminder,” or “You did a good job of controlling the weight and slowly lowering it back down.”).
Progress charts and checklists allow the child to note those tasks that have been successfully completed, as well as document improvement over time (i.e., number of repetitions, resistance, distance, time) and provide a sense of accomplishment. This sense of accomplishment can boost self-esteem and motivation to continue the program. It also supports self-organization, self-direction, and independence in older children/teenagers by giving them a tool to perform their routine with little prompts from an adult.
Another strategy that benefits most children with ASD is to keep visual or verbal instructions short and simple. This is especially important for children and teenagers with more severely impaired language, difficulties in processing auditory information, and/or impaired cognition.
The incidence of ASD is growing at an alarming rate. Professionals in fitness and health settings will likely interact with individuals with ASD and should therefore have a basic understanding of the disorder, special considerations, and strategies related to exercise training. Professionals should encourage the recommended levels of physical activity because improved fitness can benefit this population greatly. This article provides information and strategies that can be easily and immediately applied to improve outcomes and adherence in this special population.
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