How is Exercise Used in ABA Programs Designed to Treat Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Ask any doctor and they’ll tell you the same thing—exercise is vital to our physical, emotional, and mental health. From maintaining a healthy weight to reducing the likelihood of developing a vast array of illnesses and diseases, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and certain types of cancers to keeping our lungs, heart, and muscles strong, an active lifestyle is crucial for our overall well-being.

Yet for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), physical activity often takes a backseat to other forms of therapy, such as occupational therapy. In fact, many of the therapies used with children with ASD involve tabletop activities or working on sedentary activities – which may be part of the reason why so many children with ASD are overweight.

What Are the Benefits of Physical Exercise for Children with ASD?

But research shows that exercise among those with ASD is incredibly beneficial. For children with ASD, physical activity has been shown to boost:

  • Motor skills (fine and gross)
  • Social communication
  • Attention
  • Behavioral issues

Through active play, children with ASD also learn valuable lessons, including taking turns, social interactions, nonverbal communication, role playing, and more. Not to mention it’s fun! And because a large percentage of children with ASD have difficulty with coordination and motor skills, physical activity through play is an excellent way to naturally build on these skills.

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How is Physical Exercise Implemented into an ABA Program?

When implementing physical activity into a child’s ABA program, ABA practitioners should keep the following in mind:

  • The child’s physical and mental limitations
  • The child’s current physical activity level
  • The child’s interests

Most children with ASD respond best to simple, individual activities and exercises. When physical exercise is paired with applied behavior analysis (ABA) strategies, the benefits for children with ASD are even greater.

For example, positive reinforcement is very important when implementing physical activity, as is using a variety of different equipment and activities to maintain interest. Instead of focusing on specific sports or exercises, exercises that use full-body movements such as climbing monkey bars, jumping, and hopping are often more successful.

Many ABA practitioners also choose to incorporate short bursts of physical activity throughout the day. For example, embedding just five minutes of physical activities in the form of dance, jogging, or yoga has been shown to be highly beneficial for children with ASD.