August 23, 2022


Pro Tips

Pro Tips: Autism and Physical Activity

Pro Tips provided by Suzanne Tuberdyke, OTR/L, BCP, Clinical Coordinator, OT, PT, APE; Jill Beang, PT, DPT, Clinical Coordinator, OT, PT; and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Physical activity is an important part of every person’s life to maintain their health. Learn more about the benefits and challenges of physical activity for a child with autism, and ways families can incorporate activity into their child’s daily routine.

What are the benefits of physical activity?

For children with autism, engaging in physical activity has many benefits. Activity can improve motor skills, object control, social skills, relationships, and self-confidence. Walking, dancing, running, swimming, or other cardio activities can help children respond better socially, decrease challenging behaviors, and reduce hyperactivity. Recreation can also improve a child’s mental and social wellbeing.

What are the barriers?

When it comes to physical activity, some of the barriers that children with autism may face go beyond physical limitations. Barriers can often be lack of accessible facilities, high costs, the location of accessible programs, and lack of providers with adaptive recreation expertise.

Oftentimes, children with autism and other developmental disabilities are socially segregated or stereotyped, limiting opportunities to participate in group sports or activities. Negative experiences, lack of support, and limited opportunities can lead many children to become disinterested or discouraged in participating in sports or other forms of activity.

What can families do?

  • Start small – The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend 1 hour of activity for children daily. If this is something new you’re introducing to your child’s routine, start small. Do a few 10 to 15 minutes activities spread out across the day. Go for a short walk around the block or to a local park. Take a family trip to the local playground or turn commercials on TV into exercise breaks. Eventually, these family walks or exercise breaks will become part of your child’s daily routine.
  • Work on motor skills – Motor skills can be fundamental to participating in physical activity and sports. Parents can help their child improve their motor skills by playing games that require their child to move in different ways, such as running, jumping, skipping, or hopping. Using different types of sports equipment like balls, bats, or racquets can help build these skills too.
  • Explore the options – Find activities your child has an interest in.  Maybe they enjoy baseball or soccer and want to play on a team. Perhaps they would enjoy a more individualized activity like swimming or riding a bike. Expose your child to group activities, social interactions, and individual activities to find out what they enjoy the most.
  • Be a role model – The best way to inspire your child to engage in physical activity is leading by example. If a child sees how much their parent enjoys walking, they’re more likely to try it. Participate in activities with your child. If they want to ride a bike,  join them. Spend some time in the yard playing catch or kicking around a soccer ball. Not only are you and your child benefitting from being active, but you’re also spending quality one-on-one time with your child.