The Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism

The primary purpose of intervention for individuals with autism (children and adults) is to teach skills that result in improved communication, increased social skills and reduction in stereotypic and other problem behavior. Studies have shown that physical activity can lead to:

  • Increases in social behavior
  • Increases in communication skills
  • Academic engagement
  • Increases in general levels of happiness
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Reduction in stereotypic behavior

These outcomes are extremely valuable for individuals with autism, their families and communities. Selecting activities (e.g., running, swimming, cycling) based on competence, and the shared interests among individuals with autism, their educators and caregivers, are key ingredients in promoting independence and community integration. Focusing on skills that are useful across physical activities includes such targets as:

  • Increasing duration of time on task
  • Staying with an adult
  • Dressing appropriately for the weather/activity
  • Requesting assistance
  • Responding to environmental stimuli (e.g., stop signs)
  • Tolerating goals (e.g., tolerates a wet bathing suit, sun block, hat etc.)

Tips for promoting physical activities:

  • Take advantage of picture/written schedules (e.g., run one lap around track, walk one lap)
  • Place reinforcers at natural places (e.g., the water stations in a local race)
  • Consider an app: Couch to the 5K ® uses effective audio and visual prompts
  • Use Social Stories and or behavior guidelines to prepare for swimming (including appropriate behavior in the locker rooms, showers and the pool itself)
  • Practice bike riding in a safe and distraction free place (e.g., tennis court or basketball court)
  • At first, honor all requests for breaks and termination. Slowly increase time and response effort.

If the goal is to build a lifelong leisure activity or to increase physical fitness it should be fun and not too demanding! A good model of skill building, effective supports, developing community partnerships, and selecting activities based on shared interests can be read in Silent Running (Schneider, 2015). This is a true story of triumph, passion, and perseverance and an excellent example of how a family’s quality of life improved significantly because of physical activity; specifically running!

Written by Randy Horowitz, M.S., Ed., SAS, Associate Executive Director of Program Development, NSSA

Published March 2019