Exercise and physical fitness are important components of a healthy lifestyle. This is especially true for individuals with autism, as children with autism have been found to have low levels of physical fitness (Auxter, Pyfer & Huettig, 1997). Physical activity can be instrumental for a person with autism to assist with his or her sensory integration, coordination, muscle tone, and social skills development. Yilmaz, Yanardag, Birkan, and Bumin (2004) found that cardiorespiratory, flexibility, balance, agility, and strength increased and stereotypical behaviors decreased after swimming.
It is important to develop an exercise program at a level comfortable for the individual. Intensity and duration of the exercise should be increased gradually overtime to accommodate the physiological training effects such as improved cardiovascular endurance, strength or flexibility. Introduce simple activities and progress to complex ones. Include activities that are enjoyable, and utilize the individual's interests and strengths when designing a physical activity program. An exercise program needs to address the four components of fitness, which include cardiovascular endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance. Considerations for each area of exercise programming are stated below.
Cardiovascular exercise benefits a person's heart, lungs, and circulatory system, which affect endurance. Cardiovascular exercise is important for individuals with autism not only for physical fitness and the resulting health benefits, but because studies have indicated that vigorous cardiovascular exercise decreases inappropriate behaviors and increases appropriate behaviors (Watters & Watters, 1980; Kern, Koegel & Dunlap, 1984). Studies on participation in cardiovascular activities demonstrated improvements in attention span and on-task behavior (Power, Thibadeau & Rose, 1992) and decreased self-stimulating behavior (Rosenthal-Malek & Mitchell, 1997).
Research studies by Kern, Koegel, & Dunlap (1984) which incorporated using jogging versus mild physical activity that utilized ball playing as antecedents to influence subsequent stereotypical behaviors of autism have shown that stereotypical behaviors decreased after 15 minutes of continuous jogging, yet ball playing had no effect on these behaviors. Fatigue does not appear to be a factor, yet physiological and behavioral mechanisms appear to be factors influencing the reduction in stereotypical behaviors. Cardiovascular activities can also be instrumental in decreasing anxiety and depression, which individuals with autism are at a greater risk of experiencing.
Strength Training Guidelines
Strength training improves muscular strength and endurance. Core strength is especially important for individuals with autism, because their trunk muscles are typically weak. Core muscles have an effect on other activities, such as balance and coordination and an important foundation that must be established before working on higher-level skills. When developing a strength-training program, incorporate activities that focus on repetition of movements in the same order and remember to prepare the individual for changes in the program. Since individuals with autism respond best to structured learning, it is important to develop a sequential and consistent strength-training program. Visual cuing and exercise diagrams can be an important component of proper exercise form and foster the ability to exercise independently.
Flexibility exercises encourage the movement of joints through a full range of motion. Flexibility is an important component of an overall physical activity program and an area that is important to address for individuals with autism as they often have low muscle tone. For example, individuals who have low muscle tone may walk on their toes to stimulate their proprioceptive system, which can result in hypertonicity or high tone in their calf muscles. Incorporating flexibility exercises which stretch the legs and feet are helpful.
Balance is the ability to stabilize the body. Incorporating balance and coordination activities into a physical activity program is important for individuals with autism because it utilizes the vestibular system. Balance activities, such as using a therapy ball or walking a line on the floor, can improve balance and coordination. Individuals with autism may have a poor sense of direction and may need visual cues, such as standing on a carpet square or a mark on the floor to help them know where to stand.