Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) move a lot—as a parent, family member or loved one of someone with ASD you can probably attest to that. There can be constant movement in an ASD household: circles, spinning, running in the yard, in the house, jumping off of couches (or bookcases, or coffee tables…I’m not judging, trust me). With all that movement, it is easy to think that your child with ASD is good at moving.
But stop to ask yourself this: Does my child have the skills needed to move meaningfully?
This meaningful movement can be as simple as walking from point A to B without bumping into everything in his/her path or walking without tripping over a penny on the ground. Meaningful movement can also be as complex as climbing on the jungle gym with peers at recess, playing kickball in physical education class, or participating in a dance performance. When you start to think about movement as more complex, what does that look like for your child?
Some of you may have a child on the spectrum who participates in a variety of meaningful activities and engages with peers through movement in an age-appropriate way—that’s wonderful! There are others of you reading this who may be thinking about physical movement in a new way and considering that, though your child is a “mover,” he/she might not be doing this in a way that facilitates development or social interaction. If so, this article may be helpful for you!
Why Movement is Important
Though delays in motor skills are not part of the diagnostic criteria, there is a large body of research that suggests there are underlying motor deficits for individuals with ASD across the lifespan. These deficits are seen in the gross motor (large body movements such as running, hopping, jumping and skipping) and object control skills (ability to manipulate objects to complete a motor task, for example, striking a ball off a batting tee, or catching a lightly tossed ball from a few feet). Individuals with ASD also show lower levels of engagement in game play, less participation in sports and higher obesity rates than their peers.
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This might not seem like an issue at first glance—maybe you don’t care if your child can catch a playground ball, and maybe he/she is not interested in playing a team sport. There are a lot of other skills that might be a priority for you to teach your child, such as language, social skills, behavior, and joint attention. However, research has shown that physical activity improves positive behaviors and decreases negative behaviors. (Table 1)
Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism
|Physical Activity can DECREASE||Physical Activity can INCREASE|
|Stereotypic behavior |
|Social interaction |
Attention span/time on task
Health and fitness
(Lang, Koegel, Ashbaugh, Regester, Ence, & Smith, 2010)
Also consider all the time that your child may have spent in early intervention services, some of which were delivered in a highly structured and sedentary setting, while peers without disabilities were practicing their movement skills through play and exploration of their environments in highly unstructured environments. They were learning how to move their bodies and be comfortable in their own skin in their yards, on the playground and in the park. Our children on the spectrum are not getting the same amount of motor practice as their peers through natural play-based settings.
A lack of basic motor skills can make it impossible for a child to enter a game of four square or tetherball on the playground. Even a simple game of tag may be difficult if the child has not learned spatial awareness and how to change directions or to move away from a tagger. Thus, this child becomes excluded from all the social activities that occur on the playground, after school, and in the park. Having the motor skills to participate in activities with peers creates opportunities to make friends, develop social skills, and learn to problem solve with others.
The Case for Physical Education
Physical education is included as part of the “well rounded” education under Every Student Succeeds Act with other core subjects such as science, art, and history. Though it is identified as a core subject, it is often overlooked when parents are considering the education of their child. This can often be due to the fact that many people had bad physical education experiences as a child and remember being picked last, hit by dodgeballs, or forced to exercise as punishment.
However, most of us can also remember a bad math teacher or a bad English teacher. Such experiences turn us away from participating in that activity. On the contrary, not much beats quality physical education for joy, engagement, social interaction, participation, health, wellness, and future quality of life. The Society for Health and Physical Education has wonderful information on what should be taught at every grade level and what makes a physically literate individual (https://www.shapeamerica.org). In fact, the National guidelines require 150 minutes per week in elementary programs and 225 minutes in middle and secondary programs (SHAPE, 2010).
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Sensory Play Ideas
If meaningful and task directed movements are challenging, and motor skills may be an underlying deficit, it would be easy to think that children on the spectrum hate physical education and activity. As parents and researchers in physical education and ASD, we had fallen into that thought process until we asked the question directly to people with ASD. These were their responses regarding physical activity:
“I’m excited for days (referring to adapted physical education)…I mean I wish I could do it two days” —11-year-old male with ASD
“It makes me exhausted but happy” —10-year-old male with ASD
“One good thing I could say is that sometimes the games can be pretty fun. Because like, you know you can really do some fun stuff.” —12-year-old female with ASD
“It makes me feel heavy. Heavy is a good feeling” —10-year-old male with ASD
These sentiments have been echoed in many teens and young adults that we’ve asked about their feelings on physical activity. They wanted more time in PE to learn skills and wished they had the skills to play with their peers at recess in games.
What is Adapted Physical Education?
Physical education is a federally mandated component of special education services for your child and must be modified, if needed, to be appropriate for your child with a disability. If a child is unable to or has challenges participating in the physical education curriculum at his or her school, adapted physical education (APE) services may be appropriate to help the child gain access through individualized development of gross motor skills, fundamental movement patterns, group games and sports, as defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Suggestions for Supporting A Child with ASD in Physical Education
Hopefully, by this point, you have been convinced of the importance of physical education services. We have identified why physical education is important to your child with ASD. Now, here is how you can promote and support your child with ASD in physical education!
- Help make movement fun but play low stakes games and activities that build skills.
- Focus on games that require cooperation rather than competition.
- Integrate a child’s interest into play for added motivation such as chasing dinosaurs, or jumping off equipment as if into a lake to encourage pretend
- Communicate with your PE or APE teacher to find out what activities are being taught ahead of time and help pre-teach those skills to your child.
- Educate yourself on the minute requirements for physical education in your state and find out if your child is getting the required amount of time.
- Ask where and how your child is receiving the required minutes, in general PE, adapted PE or a combination.
- Talk to your child’s physical education teacher and find out what curriculum and standards are being used in their program.
- Observe your child’s school playground to see what games and activities children are playing. You can then teach these games or ask about the school supporting the learning of these games through APE or support on the playground.
- Advocate for your child, but also teach your child to advocate for themselves—help him/her communicate needs so he/she can actively engage with peers in the PE setting.
Moving and being physically active are important to promoting a healthy lifestyle. Helping build skills for your child with ASD by supporting meaningful movement experiences, educating yourself on the physical education requirements that your child should be receiving and then advocating for those resources will help your child become physically literate. He/She can then use those skills throughout a lifetime to access social opportunities, help provide self-regulation and live a healthy and active lifestyle.
Adapted Physical Education National Standards http://www.apens.org/whatisape.html National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability: Building Healthy and Inclusive Communities http://www.nchpad.org/
Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) http://www.shapeamerica.org/
Support REAL Teachers http://www.supportrealteachers.org/
Physical Education for Students with Disabilities http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/pe.index.htm
Lang, R., Koegel, L. K., Ashbaugh, K., Regester, A., Ence, W., & Smith, W. (2010). Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(4), 565-576. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2010.01.006
This is article was featured in Issue 73 – Amazing Ways To Support Autism