If you are a parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the mere title of this article may have you exhausted and doubtful. Images of you encouraging your child to come out for runs or bike rides may instil fear and trepidation into your mind. Please just bear with me while we open this discussion, it may offer you some realistic and practical ways that you can begin to introduce exercise into the daily life of your whole family.
Before we move on, let’s just brush up on the term evidence based practice (EBP). An EBP can be defined as an instructional strategy, intervention, or teaching program that is grounded in scientifically based research. Practitioners or teachers supporting individuals with ASD should use EBPs in support strategies.
Your first question is likely to be why? Why is exercise an EBP for individuals on the autism spectrum? Research indicates that exercise can be used to improve the physical fitness of learners with ASD plus bolster their opportunities for social engagement. In addition, exercise can be used to increase desired behaviours such as engagement in set tasks and improve fundamental motor skills which in turn offers individuals on the spectrum huge advantages for tasks they need in their day to day functioning such as getting dressed. Exercise has been found decrease challenging behaviours such as aggression and self-injury (1). The list of benefits are comprehensive and offer a very compelling argument to giving exercise a go.
Let’s discuss more about ‘how’ and ‘when’ parents could try to add exercise into their daily routines. I have stepped out a few ideas for you to think about. You can implement these ideas in your own space adapting the them to suit the needs of your own family. Firstly, start small and utilise your child’s interests when you can. Here’s an example, my son loves singing, during the chorus of his songs we dance. Our heart rates fly and we get all the benefits of exercise without any difficult coercion. Secondly, try to build a routine around your exercise. Predictability may increase the likelihood that your child will anticipate and look forward to their particular exercise task, particularly if it is engaging and motivating for them. Thirdly, use techniques such as video modelling, which is another evidence based practice whereby you video your child completing a set task. This offers your child an opportunity to visualise themselves taking part in the activity, allowing them to revisit the video to focus on one component of the task at a time. Video modelling can help to improve a your child’s engagement in this activity in the future. Evidence indicates that video modelling is an EBP that can be more motivating and less threatening for children on the spectrum (2).
Exercise has been pivotal in maintaining our well being during lockdown. We dance when we can, we do crawling races to the shower, we have running races to the freezer for icecreams. This all occurs within our family home! I look forward to writing another piece about exercise when we can utilise the spaces within the community.
1.Dillon, S. R., Adams, D., Goudy, L., Bittner, M., & McNamara, S. (2017). Evaluating Exercise as Evidence-Based Practice for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in public health, 4, 290. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00290
2. Video-modelling and autism | Raising Children Network