We’ve all heard how kids need to eat right and exercise, but getting involved in physical activities is especially important for children with ASD. Because of their differences, kids with ASD tend to avoid participating in physical activities, like games on the playground or during gym class. They aren’t participating as much, so they are getting fewer opportunities to build some of the skills that are important for their overall development.
What makes physical activities more challenging for children with ASD?
Studies have shown that children with ASD often have motor skill impairments and significantly poorer fine and gross motor skills than their typically developing peers. So coordinating movements like running, hopping, catching, throwing, and spinning can be more difficult for them. These deficits tend to show up more in more complex activities that require core balance or incorporate visual and temporal feedback. Children with ASD might also find participating in physical activities to be more challenging because of the all the sensory information they have to process. The amount of auditory, visual, and tactile stimuli might be overwhelming to some children.
On top of their motor impairments, children with ASD often have executive function deficits as well. Executive function has to do with how our brains process information to do important things like organize, switch tasks, manage stress, start new non-routine actions, set goals, and control impulses. Sometimes children with ASD are inflexible and have trouble with new tasks outside of their regular routine because of executive function deficits. This can get in their way of being successful in at home, in social settings, and at school.
What does the research say?
A study done by Chien-Yu Pan et al followed 22 children with ASD during a twelve-week intervention of table-tennis training. Each child went to two 70-minute sessions a week, during which they learned new skills that gradually became more complex. For example, once the child learned to return the ball with basic forehand and backhand returns, the coaches introduced more challenging tasks, like returning a ball delivered at various speeds and from different directions. The training had individual and group components, as well as warm-up and cool-down drills.
In order to master these tasks, the children had to learn to self-evaluate and monitor their performances. They anticipated upcoming events, planned alternative strategies, and used feedback to understand the outcomes of their movements. They also learned more trunk control and how to efficiently shift their bodyweight, leading to improved running ability as well as strength and agility. The children were also encouraged to practice with repetitions and experiment with varied strategies to learn better techniques, enhancing attention and concentration.
All of the children in the study had significant improvements in both motor skill and executive function measurements. This indicates that physical activity intervention may serve as a valuable addition to other forms of therapy for children with ASD with executive function impairments. Getting kids involved in activities that will get them thinking and moving can help them develop skills that are important for everyday life. Interventions like the one in Pan’s studies are motivating for children and easy to implement.
What can you do?
Enrolling your daughter in a soccer camp or signing her up for tee ball might be a little premature, but lower-impact games like table tennis, as this particular intervention tried, might provide her with a perfect opportunity to improve executive function, strengthen her motor skills, and interact with her peers. Other options, such as air hockey or foosball, might also work. As your son gauges the speed of the air hockey puck or estimates the time it will take to cross the table, he will be able to learn new skills outside of traditional therapy that are key to his overall development. Most importantly, these activities can be fun and build your child’s confidence as they develop their abilities.
Pan, C., Chu, C., Tsai, C., Sung, M., Huang, C., & Ma, W. (2016). The impacts of physical activity intervention on physical and cognitive outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. doi:10.1177/1362361316633562