Count Me In! ASD and Physical Activity - Autism Awareness
Physical activity and autism

Count Me In! ASD and Physical Activity

Physical activity has soared to the top of the priority list since COVID-19 started to support health and well-being. It should be a part of everyone’s week throughout their lifespan. Regular exercise lessens anxiety, improves sleep, increases endurance, builds muscles, develops motor skills and offers opportunities for socializing. Whether being involved in organized sports on a team, solo activities (swimming, archery, martial arts), or just playing outdoors, physical activity offers the chance to grow stronger, expand interests, and adds to the enjoyment of life.

Supports and accommodations will need to be put into place to make physical activity inclusive and accessible. How do we encourage physical activity and set the stage for success?

Understanding Autism

Autism neurology and processing are different from that of neurotypicals. Visual processing is stronger than auditory processing, therefore instruction needs to be delivered more through demonstration or with visual supports than verbal explanations. There can be movement differences because of dyspraxia and motor skills ability. Working memory, the brain’s temporary storage system, is also affected so instruction must be repetitive and explicit on the same element or skill for a longer period of time. Repeated practice over time fosters critical mass which means true mastery of a skill. Critical mass is the point where an individual has gained enough information to be successful in situations, activities, or skills for which instruction has not been provided. When there has been enough instruction and multiple experiences, a tipping point can occur and the person can apply the skill in many new ways. For example, learning how to hit a puck on the ice may also help with hitting the ball in field hockey.

Start with Little Steps to Get Moving

If a child has not been physically active, enrolling them in a sport or lessons may be too much to start with. Think about:

  1. Walking to the corner store to get a few things.
  2. Walking the dog.
  3. Walking to school or the library.
  4. Creating a family routine like shooting some hoops after dinner or walking to a nearby park.
  5. Introducing little body breaks throughout the day – 5 minutes on a mini-trampoline in between activities, running on the spot during a TV commercial, set an alarm on a phone to get up and move for a few minutes every hour.

Build Physical Literacy

A person will have more success with physical activity if they have some of the prerequisite skills. Physical literacy can be practiced through a series of simple exercises that only take minutes to do. Some examples of physical literacy skills are:

  • balance
  • coordination
  • tracking a moving object in the air
  • catching
  • throwing
  • striking (hitting an object with a stick, racquet, bat etc.)
  • agility (used in sports like soccer, basketball, hockey, volleyball, racquet sports, martial arts, dance)
  •  jumping
  • skipping
  • hopping

The Active for Life website has a number of activities that target these skills. They are short (5 – 15 minutes) and a list of equipment and instructions are provided.

Sample a Variety of Activities

You never know what you’ll like until you try it. Sample a variety of activities. My adult son enjoys horseback riding, biking, hiking, sailing, bowling, golf, swimming, fitness classes and yoga. My adult daughter loves curling, bowling, swimming, golf, biking, boxing, and Wii Fit workouts. When trying out new physical activities, include one or more from these 3 areas:

Fitness – activities that encourage moderate to vigorous activity that elevate the heart rate
Social Interaction – activities that involve one or more people such as tennis, badminton, or catch
Independent Activities – activities that can be done alone such as yoga, Wii Fit, lifting weights

Visual Supports

Using visual supports strengthen memory and learning, particularly for those who are weaker with auditory processing (hearing verbal descriptions and instructions and turning them into actions). Video modelling and feedback can show an athlete what they look like and what needs to change in their movement or how to do something correctly. It can also help them learn a skill or break down the sequence of a skill. For example, in figure skating there are patterns available to print and follow when learning sequences. Drawing patterns with markers on the ice to follow are great visual reminders of what to follow when executing an element.

Drawings or pictures support physical instruction. Hand over hand demonstrations can work as well. Physical positioning with guidance from an instructor can help with muscle memory and teach how things feel physically.

You can also use visual supports to show the instruction breakdown of a lesson, show the sequence of a particular skill, procedures (putting on hockey equipment) and assigning time for physical activity in the daily schedule.

Sticking With It, Staying Motivated

Offer regular breaks and a quiet space to regroup, especially if a person is feeling overwhelmed and needs time to self-regulate and regain control. Learning something new can feel exhausting and frustrating because of the time and focus it takes to master a skill. Progress can be slow and plateaus sometime feel like they will last forever. Setbacks can happen if an injury occurs or life circumstances become overwhelming. Motivation through praise and encouragement, no matter how small the progress is, can help a person get past these rough patches. Keeping track of progress in a little book or on a chart can also help a person see that they are improving in small, incremental steps.

It is recommended that children engage in 60 – 90 minutes of physical activity a day. Active for Life has an Activities and Log Skills tracking sheet to keep track of exercise. Some kids enjoy lists and charts and find it motivating to keep track of what they are doing. Whenever your child is active, have them record their times in the appropriate row and column on the sheet. At the end of the day and again at the end of the week, add up the totals to see how they are doing. You can set small goals such as increasing the time for an activity or trying a new skill. Sometimes seeing things written down can lessen the anxiety of having to think of something to do or it can inspire a child to add something of their own to the list.

Individual Instruction

When trying a new sport, it may be helpful to start with private lessons to get the one on one attention. A private instructor can pace instruction based on need. When my daughter wanted to try curling this year, we had her start with private lessons. The individual attention made her feel more relaxed and she didn’t feel the pressure of having to demonstrate new skills in front of a group. Her social anxiety is very high so it takes her a long time to get comfortable with new things. Being in a group would have made her so anxious that she would not have been able to concentrate.

Group Instruction

Group instruction can work if your child has the prerequisite physical skills (think physical literacy) and is grouped together with others at the same skill level. It can also provide a great social opportunity. When our children first started bowling, we enrolled them with Special Olympics. The instructors had a lot of experience working with different disabilities and knew how to support the athletes. Look for recreational facilities that provide adapted programs. Our children both take an adapted fitness class at our local recreation center. They have workouts tailored to their fitness level and goals, but work out with same group every week. They have a social at the end of the course which is always good fun.

There are lots of ways to get moving and it doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. For more ideas on how get your child moving, visit the Active for Life website. Working physical activity into the daily routine will benefit a person for their lifetime.



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  1. Meghan Matheson says:

    Hi there, 
    I am a Personal Trainer currently working with a child on the spectrum. I go to his school during lunch and help him with his motor skills, strength and coordination. However, at the moment he is catching, passing and starting to bounce the ball. His focus lasts about 5 minutes then we try to something else. I was wondering  if you could suggest any activities to build up his confidence and to get him more interested in ball skills. 

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