Exercise and Autism: A Positive Impact on Behavior

Autism refers to the complexity of neurobiological development disorders. Affecting 1% of the population within this continent, many experts consider it among the most serious of all mental health conditions. Recent studies indicate that physical exercise can confer short-term benefits for young autistic patients. As trainers, working with these children and teens can make a profound difference in their quality of life and that of their family members. How prepared are you for such a challenge?

Stereotypical Behaviors

The diagnostic display of characteristics used to identify an individual as “on the autism spectrum” may include a lack of social/interpersonal skills, delayed verbal abilities, and especially repetitive movements (also referred to as self-stimulation). The most common stereotypical behaviors — rocking motion of the hands, nodding, rocking the body forward/backward, and the need for repeated manipulation of objects – all occur in an involuntary manner. As we can easily understand, such behavior can cause significant interference/disruption in social and/or learning interactions, both of which play a critical role during childhood.

The exclusive function of the aforementioned movements involves physical and sensory self-regulation. The earliest support for exercise as an autism intervention came from anecdotal evidence highlighting how movement can serve as a technique for controlling self-stimulatory behaviors. Special education teachers reported that students appeared more attentive and cooperative after P.E. classes, field trips, or other outdoor excursions. This early interest caught the attention of scientists studying autism characteristics and behaviors, most notably the effect of exercise on self-stimulatory movements. Overall, these studies have proven promising.

The Reasoning Behind Typical Autism Movements

Autism experts have posited two theories with regard to physical activity and self-stimulatory movements. One states that engaging in vigorous physical activity produces physiological arousal similar enough to self-stimulation, thereby mitigating the need for the inappropriate behavior, if only temporarily. Another theory claims that physical exercise can indeed provide sensory feedback similar to self-stimulation, but in a more acceptable framework.

Reasonable logic stands strong behind these theories. Self-stimulating behavior provides a bit more sensory input when the individual feels the need. Conversely, using the movements for self-soothing can help block out too much input from the surroundings. Experts also point to the movements as a means of reducing pain, as they elicit mood-enhancing beta-endorphins throughout the body.

Effects of Exercise on Stereotypic Autism Movement

A fairly comprehensive study set out to examine the relationship, if any, between moderate physical activity and self-stimulatory behavior. The sole subject, a 12-year-old male, initially refused to run on a treadmill for the 15-minute time frame requested by the scientists. The experiment shifted to cater to the boy’s desire/ability to run between 5 and 8 minutes.

The treadmill progressed at 4.5 miles per hour, enough to induce effects concomitant with a mildly strenuous activity level (increased respiratory rate) but nothing more. Verbal praise and support, offered every 60 seconds, helped to encourage the child as he ran.

Even running for fewer than 15 minutes per session, the participant still displayed a considerable decrease in self-stimulatory behaviors. The researchers suggested that any form of moderate exercise might easily fit into a school/learning curriculum, for example, or other organized gatherings. Blended classrooms of children both with and without autism (mainstream education) often face unique teaching/learning issues; self-stimulation and other uncontrollable characteristics associated with autistic children can disrupt the flow of lessons and distract some classmates. If frequent exercise breaks can help with this, it seems worthy of consideration.

Varying Intensity Yields Different Results

Within the scientific community, questions arose regarding what level of exercise intensity could add the most benefit to an autistic person. It appears as though 15 minutes of mild exercise, such as engaging in a game of throw-and-catch with a partner, or taking a brisk walk, had little if any effect on the manifestation of self-soothing behaviors. However, 15 minutes of continuous and vigorous exercises like running or jogging always induced a reduction in autism-stereotyped behaviors.

The mean reduction of behaviors – 17.5% — measured prior to and after jogging, only lasted temporarily; the self-soothing movements returned to pre-exercise levels within 90 minutes, and often within just 10 minutes following the exercise. Still, educators and parents alike can use this data to find the proper amount of exercise to add to their child’s school day, making learning as well as teaching more successful.

Success Across the Ages

A compilation of studies looked at exercise methods of 64 autistic volunteers, ranging from age 3 up to age 41. As data reflected above, scientists observed a lessening not only of self-soothing movements but also in levels of aggression and “off-task” behavior following the exercise. These studies also sought to rule out post-exercise fatigue as a possible cause of diminished self-soothing movements. As hypothesized, on-task behavior and appropriate motor behavior, both of which require energy, actually increased following physical exercise.

Powerful Anecdotal Evidence

In any community of adults living with autism, people often share success stories as a means of motivating others. An interesting post by a blogger calling herself Cerys the Chameleon describes how the gym, and weightlifting in particular, evolved into a safe space for her. Upon reading her descriptions of how bodybuilding worked as a tool for managing her symptoms, it seems that any personal trainer could confidently advocate for young people to get involved in this passion.

Here you can read an excerpt of Cerys’ story:

“What I didn’t ever consider when I began the gym was how good weight lifting is for self-regulation. When the barbell is on my shoulders, it almost has the effects of a weighted blanket – it feels really comforting and grounding. The feeling of my muscles contracting is a nice sensation, a reminder that I’m alive. The sound the barbell makes when the plates hit the floor after a lift soothes me, plus the feeling of achieving that lift is euphoric.

When I began the gym and I was highly anxious, I would incorporate mindfulness into it. Every push I made I was pushing something away that I no longer wanted in my mind, anxiety, past memories, hurt. Every pull, I was pulling something I wanted, more confidence, independence, health.

It’s also helped me massively to have a structure and routine. To set goals to work towards and feel a bit more control. Being autistic I often feel out of control due to the sensory overwhelm and difficulties keeping up with daily life.”

We Can Change Lives

The positive effects outlined here, resulting from the introduction of exercise in the autistic population, highlight the need to reach out to and encourage this demographic to embrace all that we offer in a gym/fitness center setting. If we can succeed in helping these individuals reduce aggressive behavior, improve muscle tone/decrease body fat, lessen distracting bodily movements and increase academic skills, we can impact life not only for the person living on the autism spectrum but also for their friends/family members. As personal trainers, our omnipresent goal of changing people’s lives calls upon us to do so in the autism community.


References

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/bin.2360070103

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6927742/

https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.psichi.org/resource/resmgr/journal_2009/Summer09JNBurns.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792819/

https://www.academia.edu/8671897/Physical_exercise_and_individuals_with_autism_spectrum_disorders_A_systematic_review

https://www.bewegenvoorjebrein.nl/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Lang-et-al-2010-Physical-exercise-ASD.pdf

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325409

Related Conditions

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18096972/

https://www.healthline.com/health/exercises-for-kids-with-autism

https://childmind.org/article/autism-and-stimming/

https://www.dangerousdonna.com/blog/2020/1/22/take-autism-to-the-gym

Wellbeing through Weightlifting

https://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/story?id=4644548&page=1

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6706897/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5840149/

http://www.tmcsea.org/uploads/1/3/9/8/13988756/the_effects_of_exercise_intensity_on_the_stereotypic_behavior_of_ind_with_autism.pdf

 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02172138

About

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at [email protected] She welcomes your feedback and your comments!