Newswise — (Indianapolis, IN) — One in 54 children in the U.S. lives with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While no cure exists, research shows that physical activity can positively impact the quality of life for those living with the world’s fastest growing developmental disability. Parents even rate exercise as the number one treatment for autism.
“Exercise goes beyond health-related benefits and increased levels of fitness for those with autism,” says David Geslak, ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist® and president of Exercise Connection. “Research shows that exercise can increase focus, improve academic performance, reduce stereotypical behaviors and build confidence.”
One study, published in ACSM’s flagship journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise®, shows that just 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise reduced verbal repetition of phases or words and hand-flapping, two common behaviors associated with autism. A recent study from Oregon State University found that to help kids with autism maintain physical activity, targeted exercise programs should take place between ages nine and 13, as that's when kids show the biggest decline in active time.
According to a national survey of autism treatment effectiveness, which rated more than 300 medications, nutritional supplements, diets and therapies, more than 700 autism families rated exercise as the number one treatment overall.
In honor of Autism Acceptance Month, Geslak and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) teamed up to share three simple, evidence-based physical activity strategies for those with autism:
- Use visuals. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true for individuals with autism because communication can be one of the biggest challenges. Using visual supports like pictures can establish structure and routine, helping those with autism make the exercise connection.
- Make exercise part of their routine. Those on the autism spectrum benefit from following a structured schedule. An exercise program should be thoughtfully integrated into the daily or weekly routine. Even one exercise session per week can be beneficial.
- Remember, persistence over perfection. Don’t worry if the exercise doesn’t resemble what you’ve seen on TV or how you demonstrated it. You simply need to get your child or students moving. Engage them in a few exercises and gradually increase the amount of time or repetitions.
“Teaching exercise to those with autism has a profound impact on the individual, their parents and the therapists or educators working with them,” adds Geslak, “ACSM and I are committed to training more professionals to successfully teach exercise to this deserving population so they can transform lives in their communities.”
Geslak’s firsthand experience teaching exercise at a school for children with autism sparked a passion and led to the development of custom fitness program that has since been incorporate in 12 universities’ curriculum. His passion, along with ACSM’s expertise on exercise guidelines, also led to the launch of the fitness industry’s first educational certificate in 2018. To date, more than 500 professionals have participated in the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate program. A recent study indicates the program is making a difference and equipping professionals with needed skills and knowledge.
“Analysis of participants' engagement in the online portion of the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate program indicates increased confidence in using evidence-based practices,” said Scott McNamara, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “This shows the program is filling a knowledge gap for practitioners, which ultimately translates to increased access to quality physical activity programming for those living with autism.”
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ACSM is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. More than 50,000 international, national and regional members and certified professionals are dedicated to advancing and integrating scientific research to provide educational and practical applications of exercise science and sports medicine. More details at www.acsm.org.
About Exercise Connection
Exercise Connection (EC) is using exercise to successfully empower the autism and special needs community to build an active lifestyle and develop an up-and-coming workforce. Twelve universities have incorporated EC programs into their adapted physical education and special education programs. EC regularly presents at autism conferences around the world, which has included Egypt, Dubai, Russia, Canada, Barbados, South Korea, Singapore and Kazakhstan.