Over the past year of COVID-19 restrictions, people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their caregivers have experienced rising levels of anxiety, behavioural challenges5, 7 and lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity4 and type 2 diabetes2.
Decreased physical activity during the pandemic has had a significant impact on people’s physical and mental health8 — particularly those with sensory processing differences who rely on the benefits of physical activity for self-regulation. SPD’s volunteer adaptive fitness trainer, Aimee Pestano, shares some insights on how exercising can help individuals with autism overcome some of the effects of the pandemic situation on their physical and mental health.
Benefits of Exercise for Persons with ASD
Research has shown that exercise can help to reduce self-stimulatory behaviours (i.e. repetitive body movements/movement of objects) in children with ASD, and “had an even greater effect when more vigorous aerobic activity was used.”6 Other benefits of exercise include helping persons with ASD increase on-task performance, while decreasing inappropriate behaviours3.
A common issue that persons with ASD contend with is constipation9. A fitness routine that incorporates bending movements can be helpful in promoting gut motility to reduce constipation. By increasing breathing and heart rate, aerobic exercise improves the ability of the intestines to contract, which will help to stimulate bowel movement.
Exercise has also been found to reduce anxiety and depression10. In fact, exercise is shown to be as effective as antidepressants in some cases1. When your body gets moving, it releases “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins, that can help to decrease feelings of stress, anxiety and depression1, 11.
To help persons with ASD and their caregivers counteract the negative effects brought about by the prolonged pandemic situation, incorporating exercise into their routine can be highly beneficial.
Inculcating the Habit of Exercising in Persons with ASD
Since April of this year, I have been co-facilitating weekly group exercise sessions for young adults with autism at SPD.
Our fitness circuit began with five exercises. As the clients progressed, new exercises were gradually added alongside modifications to increase the difficulty of each movement.
In the beginning, some of the clients were not motivated to exercise, and did not enjoy the change in their routine. Positive reinforcement through praise and healthy snacks like dried broccoli or small boxes of raisins were offered as motivators. “First-then” communication was often used; clients first had to complete the non-preferred activity (for example, ball slams) before they could enjoy the preferred activity (watching their favourite YouTube video for a few minutes). Modelling the movements, exercising in tandem, and communicating to build confidence also helped to ensure a successful session.
Over the past six months, the SPD staff and I have witnessed exceptional progress among the fifteen clients participating in this fitness programme. Balance and coordination have markedly improved, and confidence has increased. There is a general calmness among the clients following the sessions, and self-regulation seems to come more easily to them.
Initially, many of the clients had difficulty in executing some of the movements. Now, the clients can complete the entire exercise circuit with ease, and they enjoy the sessions as well. There is also an increased tolerance for changes in the environment, and better collaboration as a group.
To view the exercises that our clients have mastered, as well as how the exercises can be performed at home, fill up this form today to receive a copy of the full article.
Aimee Pestano is an ACSM-certified adaptive exercise specialist and a volunteer at SPD who helps to facilitate exercise sessions for young adult clients with autism. She has worked as a health coach and fitness trainer since 2013, and is also trained in nutritional psychology and behaviour change coaching. To support persons with disabilities, Aimee has set up a fundraising campaign to raise funds for SPD. Please click here if you would like to show your support.
1 “Exercise is an All-Natural Treatment to Fight Depression”. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Feb. 2, 2021.
2 Gale, Jason. “Two Pandemics Clash as Doctors Find That Covid Spurs Diabetes”. Bloomberg May 5, 2021.
3 Geslak, David. “Exercise, Autism and New Possibilities.” Palaestra, Vol 30, No. 2. 2016.
4 Mozes, Alan. “Obesity a Threat to Adults With Autism, But There May Be Help”. US News & World Report. Sept. 24, 2021
5 Pais, Dr. Sarah. “Covid Caused Heightened Anxiety for Autistic People, With Some Too Scared to Leave Their Homes”. The London School of Economics and Political Science. July 21, 2021
6 Schmitz Olin, Stephanie; Bridget McFadden, et al. “The Effects of Exercise Dose on Stereotypical Behavior in Children with Autism”. Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, p. 984, 2017.
7 Vilelas, Jose. (2021). Autistic Spectrum Disorder in the Context of the Pandemic by Covid-19: Caring for Children and Caregivers. Contemporary Developments and Perspectives in International Health Security: Volume 2. DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.96583.
8 Xianfeng Ai, Jingjing Yang, et al. “Mental Health and the Role of Physical Activity During the Covid-19 Pandemic”. Frontiers in Psychology. 20 October 2021.
9 Wasilewska, J., & Klukowski, M. (2015). Gastrointestinal symptoms and autism spectrum disorder: links and risks – a possible new overlap syndrome. Pediatric health, medicine and therapeutics, 6, 153–166.
10 Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106.
11 Health Promotion Board. (n.d.) Health Benefits of Exercise and Physical Activity. 3 November 2021.