Five ways physical activity may impact a child with ASD

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(alt title: How physical activity improves your ASD child’s functioning?)

Does your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seem more clumsy than his peers? Do not give up on empowering them to exercise. Here is the scientific evidence that physical activity may change your child’s everyday life.

Motor disabilities accompany developmental conditions like autistic spectrum disorder. They may also affect academic results, communication, and social engagement. Little is known about how physical activity influences a child with ASD. However, available studies suggest regular exercise helps children with ASD overcome some difficulties. For example, the National Standards Program of the United States listed physical activity as one of the 22 emerging treatments for ASD.

You can help improve your child’s behavior and functioning by promoting regular exercise. Here are the ways exercise helps children with ASD.

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Improves visual attention skills

Study says physical activity improves visual attention skills. Chinese scientists from the Northeastern University of Shenyang researched a group of 189 school children diagnosed with ASD. Children were divided into three groups. One was playing virtual reality training with FIFA21 six times per week for six weeks, and the second was playing real matches three times per week for six weeks. The third control group participants were given only psychological consultations.

Scientists checked visual attention improvement after the experiment. First, they showed children slides with white rings on black background. Among them appeared a red ring-probe stimulus. Then they asked, “Is there a red dot?” and concluded that physical exercises and virtual sessions improved the detection rate of probe stimulus in children with ASD.

Improves executive function

The executive function enables complex cognitive processes like working memory, inhibition, and flexibility. That is why it greatly regulates your child’s behavior and emotional reactions. 

Children with ASD may differ from one that developed typically, but studies are inconsistent. How can we help? We can influence executive function through external stimuli.

Scientists elucidate this phenomenon may be the stimulating effect on BDNF production – a molecule that maintains cognitive function. Probably that is why, after training cessation, executive function is back to the baseline. 

Interestingly, virtual training has the same effect on executive function as physical activity. But remember: you cannot treat games the same as physical activity. They do not prevent diseases like obesity, diabetes, or cancer. Of course, it is always better to grab a ball and play a football match with your kid, but PlayStation may benefit your child’s brain when the weather is terrible.

Reduces stereotypic behaviors

Authors of the work published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise asked 21 individuals with ASD and observable forms of hand-flapping and body-rocking stereotypic behaviors (SB) to attend three study days. One day was a control day. On the second day, they spent 10 minutes on a ball-tapping exercise. On the last one, participants focused on 10 minutes of jogging. All days had been in randomized order.

The results showed that ball-tapping exercise reduced hand flapping behaviors, and 10 minutes of jogging diminished body-rocking behaviors. However, the effects declined within 45 minutes after activities.

‘According to the theory, the „matched stimuli’ (i.e., the matched exercise) may have aroused the participants with desired sensory stimulation and therefore decreased the need to engage in SB,’ elucidated scientists from The Education University of Hong Kong. 

Strengthen social confidence

The connection between physical activity and social adjustment acts bidirectionally: they influence each other. Children with ASD often feel uncertain and are withdrawn in contact with peers due to motor deficits comorbid with autistic symptoms. Typical kids and teens may appear skeptical or bully autistic colleagues, which worsens the situation.

The resolution is not to allow your child to give up on training with others but to find and engage the young person in a friendly and non-competitive group.

The more child will train, the better condition and performance they can achieve, and the more likely they will take part in activities in more competitive groups. In addition, confidence in social situations may also be a beneficial trait when looking for work. Therefore, let your son or daughter be more confident and overcome social difficulties.

Help stick with healthy habits

Problems with motor skills make children with ASD prone to many other diseases like obesity and depression. The way the children on the autistic spectrum experience physical activity will refer to their willingness to exercise as adults. If you take care of making exercise opportunities kind, sensory-friendly, and allowing your child to socialize as he likes, he will be more likely to continue healthy habits.

Remember that ‘physical inactivity is linked to many preventable health conditions such as diabetes and depression, which cannot be addressed solely via nutrition and diet interventions (World Health Organization, 2018).’ Therefore, exercises prevent your beloved one from other health risks.

A plan for you

To wrap up, think of benefits, find a friendly sports club, and encourage children to play with peers. Then, exercise together regularly and buy a video game to continue training when physical activity in fresh air is impossible.

Martyna Piotrowska


  1. Brain Sciences | Free Full-Text | Effects of Physical Exercise and Virtual Training on Visual Attention Levels in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (mdpi.com)
  2. Children | Free Full-Text | Executive Function Improvement for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Comparative Study between Virtual Training and Physical Exercise Methods (mdpi.com)
  3. Physical Exercise and Stereotypic Behavior in Autism (medscape.com)
  4. Frontiers | Scoping Review: Physical Activity and Social Functioning in Young People With Autism Spectrum Disorder (frontiersin.org)
  5. A grounded theory of adoption and maintenance of physical activity among autistic adults – Andrew M Colombo-Dougovito, A Josephine Blagrave, Sean Healy, 2021 (sagepub.com)
  6. IJERPH | Free Full-Text | Global Trends in Physical-Activity Research of Autism: Bibliometric Analysis Based on the Web of Science Database (1980–2021) (mdpi.com)
  7. Motor Functional Characteristics in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Systematic Review – PMC (nih.gov)

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