Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review
Lang, R., et al. (2010). (in press). Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Most individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) experience more difficulty with gait, balance, and other movement compared to those without ASD. Despite this, several studies have documented a gap in the amount of physical activity between those with ASD and those without.
Given the extensive health benefits associated with physical activity, there is a critical need to increase physical activity in individuals with ASD. There is an abundance of literature reviews and research articles, including programmatic interventions, that discuss the provision of physical activity opportunities to this population. This study aims to comprehensively examine this wide array of interventions on the topic to serve as a guide for future programming and research.
To be included in the review, studies needed to have at least one participant with ASD, and exercise was required to be the dependent or an independent variable. Eighteen studies met this predetermined inclusion criteria.
Each of the 18 studies was summarized in terms of the following factors: (a) participant characteristics, (b) exercise behavior taught, (c) teaching procedures, (d) outcomes, and (e) research methodology.
A total of 64 participants with ASD were gathered from the 18 studies. Jogging/running was the exercise behavior taught the most. Teaching methods most implemented were modeling and physical guidance. Many of the studies in this review had the instructor jog alongside the participant; the close proximity enhanced opportunities for praise, as well as any corrections or advisement. All of the included studies reported improvements in behavior, fitness, academics, or exercise behaviors, as well as a short-term decrease in stereotypy.
High-intensity exercise appeared to have a more meaningful result than low-impact and low-intensity exercise. Many studies reported a significant reduction in stereotypic behaviors post-exercise; the authors hypothesize that this was due to exercise satisfying the same internal needs for the behavior. If there is indeed a relationship between physical activity and reduced stereotypy, further interventions could focus on matching the type of exercise with the individual's stereotypic behavior.
Given the small cumulative number of participants in the 18 qualifying studies (64), the current base of information on this topic is limited. A large gap exists in specific experimental research on teaching exercise and encouraging fitness for this population, and current research would benefit from more specific studies on teaching procedures.