The Effect of Exercise Programs on Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A Review of Current Literature
Miller, Haylie Ph.D.
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Purpose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by challenges with social skills and delays in motor skills (Bremer, Balogh, & Lloyd, 2014; Caçola et al., 2019). Children with ASD tend to have a greater need for therapy compared with other children with special healthcare needs, but accessing services can be expensive, time-consuming, and difficult (Benevides, 2015). It is important for families to have motor intervention options without barriers of financial resources, transportation, or access. A home exercise program, for example, could be completed with the family at convenient times in a familiar environment. This approach may increase the likelihood of intervention adherence, allowing children with ASD to improve their motor skills without experiencing many of the common barriers to care. Our objective is to identify trends and gaps in literature regarding exercise programs for children with ASD, and to determine the most beneficial exercises to improve motor skills in ASD. Methods We completed a literature search using a combination of terms with Boolean operators including: (autistic disorder OR autistic OR autism OR Asperger’s OR ASD OR pervasive developmental disorder) AND (motor intervention OR movement intervention OR movement therapy OR motor therapy OR exercise OR physical therapy OR PT OR HEP OR home exercise program). We limited our search to articles published in English within the last ten years. Three independent reviewers screened the articles to determine relevance. Results The search yielded 609 results, of which 20 empirical articles and 3 systematic reviews were relevant to the effects of exercise on ASD. Preliminary results show an emphasis on cognitive and behavioral effects of exercise, rather than motor benefits. Additionally, the majority of exercise programs were school-based; few included parent involvement in the exercise program. Conclusion The existing body of work suggests that exercise has significant benefits regarding behavior, cognitive function, and motor skills. However, there is a lack of research validating home exercise programs and parent involvement in exercise for children with ASD. We plan to identify a set of targeted, age-appropriate exercises and create a home exercise program for children with ASD designed to improve motor skills. This approach may be of greater value to the community than clinic or school-based motor interventions, given the commonly-reported barriers to care experienced by families.