Four Ways Exercise Can Help Improve Autism-Related Behaviors

autism, autism spectrum disorder, exercise, children's health

We know exercise is good for everyone, especially kids, for many reasons including keeping them fit and physically healthy. Daniel Coury MD, Medical Director and developmental behavioral pediatrician with Nationwide Children’s Hospital say that exercise can especially be good for children with autism and may help improve problem behaviors.

Autism is a complex neurobiological, developmental disorder that affects about one out of every 88 US children, according to statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even more recent data shows the prevalence of the condition to be skyrocketing, with potentially as many as one in 50 school children affected.

Early medical intervention has been shown to be most beneficial, giving children the greatest opportunity for positive outcomes. Exercise could play a significant role in the overall treatment program as it has many benefits for autistic children.

Most Commonly Cited Benefits of Exercise for Children
Exercise promotes a healthy weight and strong bones, reduces stress, and improves cardiovascular function. Exercise can also improve mood by helping to increase the release of several brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These include endorphins and dopamine which affect brain functioning.

Benefits of Exercise for Children with Autism
Autism Speaks reported in 2009 that the prevalence of children with autism who are overweight is about 19% - slightly greater than the overall prevalence of obesity among all American children. Decreased physical activity is cited as the primary reason for this because of factors such as limited motor functioning, low motivation, difficulty in planning, and difficulty in self-monitoring. Furthermore, team sports can present an additional challenge for autistic children due to the social interaction involved.

Finding an exercise that is fun and that can be performed on a regular basis can result in significant improvements to weight status.


Research has also demonstrated that increased aerobic exercise can significant decrease the frequency of negative behaviors such as body rocking, hand flapping and object tapping. It may also help to discourage aggressive or self-injurious behaviors.

Regular exercise can also improve focus and attention span. Just 20 minutes daily of some form of aerobic exercise such as jogging or swimming can improve concentration and organizational skills.

Lastly, regular physical activity can promote self-esteem, increase general levels of happiness, and can lead to positive social outcomes.

Finding the Right Activity for Your Autistic Child
Dr. Coury suggests that you find an activity that plays to your child’s preferences and skills/abilities. Does he prefer jogging, riding a bike, or swimming? Jumping rope, hopscotch or even old style calisthenics might be fun as they can be either a solo or group activity. You might even try yoga, as there have been studies on how the practice can reduce stress, teach coping techniques and provides a sense of calm and acceptance.

You, as a parent, may still need to provide much motivation to keep the exercise program going from day to day. You might try holding back a favorite activity such as computer or television until some amount of physical activity is performed.

Last, but certainly not least, be a role model. Join in on the fun. The entire family can benefit from daily exercise not only from a physical health standpoint, but it also provides a terrific time for bonding together.

Autism Speaks – Can Exercise Improve Behavior
Autism Speaks - Sports, Exercise, and the Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism