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How is Exercise Used in ABA Therapy?

How is Exercise Used in ABA TherapyExercise is key for individuals to stay fit and maintain a healthy weight, but it also has additional benefits that are under the surface and not physically visible. Moving your body can help your brain stay healthy and can pump out endorphins to increase happiness and a sense of calm while helping overall mental health; regular exercise can positively affect the hippocampus, which is in charge of learning and memory function; and simply getting moderate exercise can help with sleep and even reduce pain. 

Exercise and Children with Autism

The positive effects of exercise are not solely for adults; children can reap the benefits of a good workout as well–and children with autism especially benefit from getting their heart rate up and participating in physical and social activities. Those with autism who attend Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy sessions often will engage in physical exercise as a treatment practice. If this option is not available through the ABA therapist for some reason, parents can request more information about exercise programs for children with autism or even speak with a physical therapist. 

“There is no magic answer to what type of activity is the most appropriate for children with ASD. The goal is simply to get the child moving. Research studies have successfully investigated the use of running or jogging, swimming or water aerobics, stationary biking, weight lifting, treadmill walking, roller-skating, and walking in snowshoes with children with ASD. Incorporating exercise into age-appropriate games, such as tag or simply climbing on playground equipment may also be effective,” (Fun and Function).

Yoga is another form of exercise that has wonderful benefits to children with autism. The physical activity does not have to be strenuous or fast; it can be calming and controlled as well. Specifically, yoga can help to increase social-communication skills, awareness and expression of emotions, reduced anxiety, reduction in challenging behaviors, increased body awareness, and a positive sense of self. 

There are many ways that exercise can be used in ABA therapy on an individual or group basis. The benefits of these exercises are exceptional and can help children with autism to be able to gain important skills that they need. 

How Does Exercise Help Those with Autism?

Children who have been diagnosed with autism can greatly benefit from regular and structured exercise. Of course, allowing a child to run around for fun is still considered exercise and has its perks, but there are specific skills that can be worked on while engaging in certain activities to help the child’s autism symptoms. 

The following are specific ways in which exercise helps children with autism.

Social and Communication Skills:

Active play can help foster basic social skills such as sharing, verbal and non-verbal communication, receptive communication skills, turn-taking, making eye contact, speaking appropriately, and other learned skills through role-playing. The role of the ABA therapist is to lead social skills groups and encourage interactive play and exercise while simultaneously working on definitive skills. 

Learning and Memory:

Exercise physically increases the size of the area of the brain that is responsible for thinking and memory. According to a Harvard article: “Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells. Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.”

Attention:

“Studies show that between 30 and 50% of individuals with ASD manifest ADHD symptoms (particularly at preschool age), and similarly, estimates suggest two-thirds of individuals with ADHD show features of ASD,” (Leitner). Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain are all increased during exercise, which affects focus and attention.

With that being said, exercise has tremendous benefits in helping decrease symptoms of ADHD and ASD such as hyperactivity, attention issues, stimming behaviors, impulsivity, and irritability. ABA therapists can guide children in aerobic activities as well as non-exercise tasks that will get their brain thinking. 

Motor Skills: 

Many children with autism have both gross and fine motor skill difficulties. “Motor deficits such as clumsiness, poor muscle tone and difficulty with fine and gross motor skills crop up in some 80 percent of children with the disorder but are not part of the diagnostic criteria,” (Green). Playing sports, participating in P.E. with other children, and having fun on a playground are all ways in which they can develop these motor skills more specifically. An ABA therapist can help pinpoint the skills that are lacking and that the child needs to be successful throughout the day. 

Body Awareness: 

Body awareness coincides with developing motor skills and also helps children practice self-control. According to experts at Chicago ABA Therapy, children with autism often have difficulties with body awareness, or “having a sense of where [their] body is in space.” The technical term for this is proprioception. “If a child struggles with proprioception, they are often clumsy or prone to falling, so ABA therapy often works to improve proprioception. By practicing exercises in ABA therapy that force a child to practice their posture and stability (e.g. karaoke walks), they will improve these skills.” Yoga is also a form of exercise that can help children with autism work on being more aware of their bodies and surroundings. 

Exercise is both physically and mentally beneficial to almost everyone–unless there are certain restrictions where an individual has been advised not to engage in it; and this has proven to be true for children, not only adults. Children with autism can reap the wonderful benefits of exercise via their school, at home, or through their ABA or physical therapist, who can give meaningful and specific exercises to hone in on key skills that may be lacking due to the autism. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

May 2020

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