Did you know that 20 years ago autism affected about one in 2000 children? Today, it affects one in 110 children. In other words, autism prevalence has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. In fact, it has increased an estimated 600%.

Autism is a complex neurobiological, developmental disorder that is typically diagnosed in childhood and often lasts throughout a person's lifetime. Children diagnosed with autism may experience an impaired ability to communicate and relate socially, a restricted range of activities, and repetitive behaviors including following very specific routines.


The causes of autism are unknown and preventative measures have yet to be discovered. However, certain behavioral therapies can result in significant improvements for many young children with autism. That said, new research suggests that exercise and other physical activities can be a useful addition to traditional behavioral interventions, leading to improvement in symptoms, behaviors, and quality of life.


Physical exercise benefits any child. However, it has particular benefits for children with autism. These children experience problems with communication, social skills and behavior, including:

  • Problems with fine motor skills
  • Difficulty with sensory integration
  • Poor attention span
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty with visual tracking of moving objects
  • Slow reaction times

Childhood Obesity and Autism

Childhood obesity has been a national epidemic for years. In the U.S., 16% of all children ages 2-19 are overweight. That figure goes up to 19% for autistic children.  And an additional 36% of autistic children are at risk for being overweight. This means that more than half of all children with autism are either overweight or at risk for being overweight. Overweight children are at an increased risk for numerous health problems, both in childhood and as adults, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems and depression. The effects of these conditions could have an even greater health impact on children and adults with autism in combination with the usual autistic symptoms.

Despite the profound benefits exercise has to offer, exercise is often overlooked by parents due to their own inactive lifestyle or the inability to make the connection between exercise and its extreme benefits for autistic children. Exercise is a great alternative to the potentially harmful drugs that are often prescribed by doctors.

Actually, there is no known medical cure for autism, yet doctors prescribe medication all the time. Why? Well, the answer is simple. Doctors prescribe medication not for the autism itself, but for the specific symptoms of autism, including behavioral issues, anxiety or depression, mood swings (bipolar disorder), obsessive compulsive disorder, attention issues and hyperactivity. The rationale is that often, when symptoms are treated, children with autism are better able to learn, communicate and generally connect with others. Is this a smart approach? This is something you and your healthcare practitioner will have to determine.Autism

That said, not only is exercise inexpensive, it is safe and healthy. And it should be one of the first interventions for an autistic child. However, designing an exercise routine for an autistic child can be challenging. Autistic children who are unaccustomed to exerting themselves physically may be resistant to exercise routines. Therefore, before considering this option, it is important to be able to manage the behavior of the autistic child before introducing an exercise routine. If the child’s behavior can be managed, then an exercise routine should be designed around the interests of the child.

A well-designed exercise program should take into account the functioning level of the autistic child and his or her strengths and weaknesses. By consistently adhering to an exercise routine, autistic children can be challenged to overcome sensory deficits and cultivate a sense of discipline and self-esteem.

Team sports for children have become part of the fabric of American families for years. However, team sports have to be carefully considered for autistic children due to complications related to team work and communication. These aspects of team sports may overwhelm an autistic child. However, with the right timing and approach, team sports could be part of your child's development of other skills. In fact, sports may afford opportunities for socialization, particularly if peers who have been taught to serve as tutors or models are available during the activity. And, in some cases, sports may help prevent problem behavior such as aggression.

Ideally, parents of autistic children should incorporate time into their lives to exercise with the child. An exercise routine should incorporate variety in order to stimulate and sustain the interest of the autistic child. In fact, autistic children should not perform the same exercises daily.

That said, be aware of professionals that require mastery of an exercise routine before initiating new exercises. Mastery is difficult for autistic children to achieve immediately. Some professionals make autistic children repeat the same exercise routines daily, until they are able to perform them well.

However, this approach is highly counterproductive. It fosters boredom and resentment and does not acknowledge that it takes time for the autistic child to strengthen their bodies before they can perform the exercises satisfactorily.

Hence, it makes more sense to expose the autistic child to various combinations of exercises that are repeated no more than once or twice a week. Over time, autistic children will gradually master these exercises.

Select the Right Exercises

Autistic children often have difficulties with any form of exercise that requires coordination. Therefore, initially it is important to identify exercises that are simple to do. Consider the following:

Proprioceptive System: Helps children (and adults) locate their bodies in space. Autistic children often have poor proprioception and will need help with developing coordination. Exercise routines may include using light weights, bouncing on a trampoline, skipping or pushing heavy objects.

Vestibular System: The Vestibular System is located in the inner ear. It responds to movement and gravity and impacts sense of balance, coordination and eye movements. Activities may include:

  • hanging upside down
  • rocking in a chair
  • spinning
  • rolling
  • somersaults
  • cartwheels
  • dancing

Children ExercisingAll the activities mentioned above involve the head moving in different ways that stimulate the vestibular system. Watch the child closely to be sure the movements are safe. Back and forth movements are less stimulating than side-to-side movements. The most stimulating movements are spinning or rotational and should be conducted cautiously. Parents should try to create activities that will combine a combination of these movements. A rocking motion will normally calm a child while vigorous motions like spinning will stimulate them. Autistic children tend to enjoy merry-go-rounds, being tossed on to a soft surface or jumping on trampolines. Parents should test the various activities to gauge the child’s interest and safety of the activity.

Learning new skills involving movement: Skills such as tying shoe laces or riding a bike can be difficult as they involve sequential movement. Exercise such as swimming, obstacle courses, constructional toys and building blocks will help in the learning of new skills.

Bilateral Integration: An autistic child may have difficulty using both sides of his or her body simultaneously. Activities such as crawling, hopscotch, skipping, playing musical instruments, playing catch and bouncing balls with both hands are some exercises that can help with bilateral integration.

Advancing the Exercise Routine

A truly valuable exercise routine should evolve with the progress of the autistic child. That said, autistic children should be exposed to new physical activities that require increased levels of complexity once a prior routine has become easy to do. The autistic child will show signs of increased strength and coordination and will be able to participate in activities that they were previously unable to do.

By creating a diverse exercise routine that consists of appropriate exercises, the autistic child will realize a profound escalation in quality of life. The continuous evolution of an exercise program will further motivate an autistic child to engage long term in this healthy lifestyle.

Once you establish effective exercise strategies that work for your autistic child, I urge you to share those ideas with others who may have autistic children. While some guidance for working with autistic children are better suited to a more structured environment, it is important to understand that any successful strategy can be adapted for use in any setting. When parents, teachers, and therapists work together, the autistic child will make meaningful strides. It’s a challenging road, but one worth taking.