Physical Activity For Children With Autism

Angie Maue

            Imagine rocking back and forth, flapping hands, and spinning a rope repetitively. Being in their own little world, never looking at other people, and not giving any response to the calls and requests of people around. Most of these students may feel, or are told, that their condition is incurable, unchangeable, and hopeless (Kaufman). There is a way to improve and help students with autism achieve the highest level of independence, social interaction, and communication possible in their home, school and community (Illinois Center For Autism, 2008). It is unnecessary to institutionalize these students; therefore educators must keep these students in school and find ways to include them. In order to include them in classes, teachers must understand their students who may have autism spectrum disorders. The autism spectrum disorders are a group of five related developmental disorders that share common core deficits or difficulties in social relationships, communication, and ritualistic behaviors; differentiated from one another primarily by the age of onset and severity of various systems (Heward, 2006). These disorders include autism, Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder (Heward, 2006).

            Autism, originally known as Kanner’s syndrome, was first described by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943 (Auxter, Pyfer, & Huettig, 2005). If a child has an autistic disorder they are marked with three features, which include qualitative impairment of social interaction, qualitative impairment of communication, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities (Heward, 2006). In 1944, Hans Asperger introduced the autistic disorder known as Asperger’s disorder (Auxter, Pyfer, & Huettig, 2005). The most distinctive feature of Asperger syndrome is impairments in all social areas, particularly a failure to understand how to interact socially. Rett’s disorder was first described in 1966 in Germany by A. Rett (Auxter, Pyfer, & Huettig, 2005). Rett syndrome is a neurological condition that has features such as severe impairments in language and cognitive abilities. This disorder primarily affects girls, and seizures are most common (Heward, 2006). The childhood disintegrative disorder consists of medical complications, and the prognosis for significant improvement is usually very poor (Heward, 2006). Children with pervasive developmental disorder have significant impairments in socialization with difficulties in either communication or restricted interests. There are many characteristics that go along with each of these disorders. 

            While looking at some of the most common characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorder, remember that some children on the spectrum are severely affected and some are mildly affected. Children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty perceiving the emotional state of others, expressing emotions, and forming attachments and relationships (Heward, 2006). These students seem to not care whether they are in a room by themselves or accompanied by a companion. Children with autism spectrum disorder fail to show social gestures, and fail to look in directions that someone may be pointing. About half of children with autistic disorder are mute or, they do not speak, but they may hum or occasionally utter simple sounds (Howard, 2006). Mostly those who do talk consist of echolalia. Echolalia is when these children repetitively say what people around them have said. These children more easily understand straightforward cause-and-effect relationships and questions that have a definite answer, than abstract concepts or idiomatic expressions (Heward, 2006). Another common deficit is the lack of understanding the social meaning of language.

            Children with autism spectrum disorders cover the entire range of IQ. Heward (2006) reported that, “between seventy percent and eighty percent of individuals with autistic disorder also have mental retardation” (p. 269). The terms low-functioning and high-functioning are sometimes used to differentiate individuals with and without mental retardation (Heward, 2006). Autistic savants are people with extraordinary ability in an area such as memorization, mathematical calculations, or musical ability while functioning at the mental retardation level in all other areas (Heward, 2006). An autistic savant is illustrated in the movie Rain Man, when Raymond, the main character, recites the betting calculations, and the types of planes that crashed over the past years. Autistic children tend to focus on minute features rather than the whole object or person. They also tend to be obsessive on a specific object or activity.

            Many children with autism have unusual responses to sensory stimuli. They also have issues about routines or repetitive behaviors. These children have an obsessive need for sameness, and will have great difficulty when routines are changed (Heward, 2006). Any changes in their routines may result in them throwing a temper tantrum. Objects must be placed in the same place all the time, and the child may ask the same questions and respond the same way every time, regardless of the reply. Some children may exhibit stereotypic behavior, very repetitive acts such as rocking their bodies when in a sitting position, twirling around, flapping their hands at the wrists, or humming a set of notes over and over again (Heward, 2006). Students with autism are more likely to exhibit behavior problems that might take the form of aggression toward others or themselves (Heward, 2006). Educators can help improve some of these characteristics by including these students in physical activity classes.      

Individuals with autism often lack the motivation to exercise, which is necessary to help with heath benefits associated with physical activity. Physical activity can also lead to positive self-esteem, behavior, happiness, and intellectual and social outcomes.  Children with autistic spectrum disorders may be at risk for inactivity due to social and behavioral deficits often associated with the condition, such as difficulties understanding social cues, making eye contact, playing imaginative and social games, engaging in sharing/turn-taking and reciprocal conversation, and making friends (Pan & Frey, 2006). “Every individual with autism is different; however, some physical activities, including activities that are sensory in nature, are important to incorporate daily. These activities can address physical recreation, sensory, and social needs. Each exercise plan should be tailored to the needs and likes of the individual, (NCPAD, 2007).” It is important to develop an exercise program at a level comfortable for individuals with autism. Intensity and duration of the exercise should be increased gradually overtime to accommodate the physiological training effects such as improved cardiovascular endurance, strength or flexibility (NCPAD, 2007). Introduce simple activities at first and then progress to more complex activities. Include activities that are enjoyable, and utilize the individual’s interests and strengths, but also include the four components of fitness, which include cardiovascular endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance (NCPAD, 2007). Specific content for each student should be based on his or her level of development in physical activities. The main objective is to provide opportunities for them to develop the skills necessary to play games and activities with their peers-those with disabilities and those without (Boswell, Decker, & Schultheis, 2000). Cardiovascular exercise is one of the four components of fitness that is significant for children with autism.

Cardiovascular exercise is important for individuals with autism not only for physical fitness and the resulting health benefits, but because studies have indicated that vigorous cardiovascular exercise decreases inappropriate behaviors and increases appropriate behaviors (NCPAD, 2007). Studies on participation in cardiovascular activities demonstrated improvements in attention span, on-task behavior, and decreased self-stimulating behavior (NCPAD, 2007). Activities that can be used for cardiovascular fitness and endurance include the use of,  stationary bikes, stair steppers, and treadmills. Educators can also use locomotor patterns such as skipping, running, galloping, and hopping. These skills should be practiced at individual activity stations with one on one instruction. All individual activities can be performed in a productive and successful way. 

There are three major elements used to successfully organize a physical activity class including, physical structure, schedules, and task organization (Boswell, Decker, & Schultheis, 2000). Teachers must pay close attention to the physical structure of their environment. If there are physical boundaries, these boundaries will foster independence for children with autism. Students with autism are more able to identify and carry out assigned tasks when visually clear boundaries designate the exact space that is available for specific activities (Boswell, Decker, & Schultheis, 2000). Boundaries increase the level of students’ emotional security, and block the students’ views. Teachers can divide room space by putting up walls in between different stations. The room dividers eliminated the overwhelming atmosphere of a large space and appeared to reduce accompanying off-task behaviors such as stereotypic ones (Boswell, Decker, & Schultheis, 2000). The educator can set up individual stations for the stationary bike, stair stepper, and treadmill. They could also section off areas for skipping, running, galloping, and hopping. Provide wait chairs by every section for students to wait their turn. A small activity can be used there to keep the student occupied. These activities can be as little as using a slinky.

The second element would be to use scheduling. Schedules are designed to accommodate difficulties of students understanding the concepts of what, when, and where (Boswell, Decker, & Schultheis, 2000). The following are reasons for developing schedules:

·        Schedules minimize problems caused by impaired memory attention;

·        Schedules reduce time and organizational problems;

·        Schedules compensate for problems with receptive language;

·        Schedules foster students independence; and

·        Schedules increase self-motivation.

(Boswell, Decker, & Schultheis, 2000). It is important to encourage cognition about what to do in different situations through the use of pictures and written words. (Boswell, Decker, & Schultheis, 2000). These are found on most exercise equipment, and they will usually tell the user how the machine is properly used and what muscles are being used. A teacher can use poster boards to help children with autism finish their daily tasks. The poster would have each child’s name across the top, and pictures with Velcro of each activity at the bottom. After the child finishes performing that activity he or she would place that activity’s picture under their name, and would continue doing so for all the activities until all the pictures were under their name.

            The final element is task organization. Task organization allows the students to complete a task in the way that is easier for them to understand, and uses objects, pictures, colors, numbers, and/or words (Boswell, Decker, & Schultheis, 2000). The teacher can use a timer to time each station, so that there is a repetitive amount of time at each station. It will be more efficient for the teacher to have the equipment set out before students arrive to class. Only the equipment needed should be out because if there is more than needed that equipment can cause distractions for the students. Each student should be placed at a station in the beginning and then explain to the student the way of rotation, but also explain it again after each time limit is up at that specific station. The teacher should give verbal and visual demonstrations of each activity at each station before beginning the rotations.     

Sixty-six point seven percent of high-functioning children with autism has definite motor problems, as measured on the Test of Motor Impairment-Henderson, and performed at a level lower than their same-age peers (Auxter, Pyfer, & Huettig, 2005). Participation in physical activity is often a challenge for people with autism because of their poor motor functioning and low motivation, difficulty in planning and generalization, and difficulty in self-monitoring (Reid & Todd, 2006). But physical activity has been shown to have multiple benefits, including reduction of stereotypic behavior, increased appropriate responding, and the potential for social interaction (Reid & Todd, 2006). Cardiovascular exercise is always helpful to anyone’s health, but is more importantly helpful to individuals with autism. Cardiovascular activities can also be instrumental in decreasing anxiety and depression, which individuals with autism are at a greater risk of experiencing (NCPAD, 2007). When teachers incorporate individualization and the three components of physical structure, schedules, and task organization, they provide a learning experience in physical education for students with autism, which is rewarding and effective.     



Auxter, D., Pyfer, J., & Huettig, C. (2005). Principles and Methods of Adapted Physical Education and Recreation. New York, NY. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Boswell, B., Decker, J. & Schultheis, S. (2000). Successful Physical Activity Programming for Students with Autism. Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities. Vol. 15, Number 3.  


Heward, William L. (2006). Exceptional Children; An Introduction to Special Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Education, Inc.


Illinois Center For Autism. (2008) Handout received March 31, 2008.


Kaufman, Raun K. (1998-2008) Breaking Through Autism. The International Autism Research Organization Newsletter.


NCPAD. (2007). Disability/Condition: Autism and Considerations in Recreation and Physical Activity Settings. Retrieved from



Pan, Chien-Yu, &  Frey, Georgia C. (2006). Physical Activity Patterns in Youth With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 36:597-606. Springer Science=Business Media, Inc. 


Reid, G. & Todd, T. (2006). Increasing Physical Activity in Individuals With Autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Vol. 21, Number 3.