As Coronavirus Curtails School and Therapy, Parents Can Turn to Exercise Instead

April 02, 2020

New Study Shows Therapeutic Benefits for Autism

Parents looking for therapeutic activities while their child with autism is home from school and therapists stay away due to the coronavirus outbreak can turn to exercise. A new study shows that physical activity has beneficial effects for core autism symptoms in addition to its benefits for physical health.

Researchers in China reviewed the science literature from the U.S. and other countries to compile a meta-analysis of the effects of exercise for children and adolescents with diagnosed autism. “The results of the meta-analysis show that physical activity had a significant positive impact on social interaction ability, communication ability, motor skills, and autism degree of autistic children as well as the social skills and communication skills of autistic adolescents,” state the authors. “On the other hand, physical activity had no significant effect on the stereotyped behavior of autistic children and adolescents.”

The core hallmarks of autism are impairments in social interactions and communication as well as heightened repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. Difficulties with motor abilities and movement frequently accompany an autism diagnosis and may be an early indicator of the onset of the disorder.

The investigators note that other studies have shown that physical activity promotes health for people with autism as well as everyone else. Yet the social and communication deficits in individuals with autism make them less likely to participate in sports activities, leading to more sedentary lifestyles. Being shut out of sports and active leisure also deprives them of social connections and inclusion opportunities, lowering their quality of life.

The improvements seen in each of the core symptoms of autism varied based on the duration, length of session and frequency per week of the exercise program. Social and communication skills improvements took the least amount of time to show benefits, and motor skills took a longer time to show changes.

Studies included in the meta-analysis were 12 randomized clinical trials from the past 10 years covering 253 children and adolescents in the experimental group and 239 in the control group. The activities studied included sports games, water sports, football, aerobics, karate, horseback riding, and other physical activities.

Parents can establish or enhance an existing exercise regimen for their child with autism during the isolating requirements of COVID-19. Activities like dancing, yoga, stretching, tossing soft objects, and navigating obstacle courses can be done at home. YouTube can be a source of instructional videos. Ascendigo Autism Services, a nonprofit providing sports opportunities in Colorado, is now offering personalized recreation therapy via telehealth format nationwide. Most families can still access nature resources like parks, playgrounds, trails and beaches even if gyms and sports facilities are closed. Officials recommend bringing hand sanitizer and wipes and maintaining social distancing when out and about.


Huang, J.; Du, C.; Liu, J.; Tan, G. Meta-Analysis on Intervention Effects of Physical Activities on Children and Adolescents with Autism. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17, 1950.

Geslak, David S. Challenging Autism With Exercise. An Opportunity Worth Stretching For. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal: March/April 2017 – Volume 21 – Issue 2 – p 19-24.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons