Participant Benefits and Training Opportunities for University Students through a 12-Week Adapted Physical Exercise Program for Adults with Autism and an Intellectual Disability

Saturday, May 17, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
C. A. Sutherland, K. Carr, P. McKeen, S. Horton and N. R. Azar, Kinesiology, University of Windsor, Windsor, ON, Canada
Background: Participating in regular physical activity can produce many health benefits. For individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), exercise can also reduce stereotypical behaviours. However, very few opportunities for fitness training and sport participation are available for these individuals, and a major barrier to participation in formalized exercise programs or sport is the cost. Furthermore, although physical activity guidelines for the general population are readily available, the exercise prescription must be adapted to meet the individual needs of those with ASD and an intellectual disability (ID). Unfortunately, these adaptions are not typically covered in the requirements for a general personal training certification/coursework. Even when the proper education is included, it is rarely accompanied by practical experience with the specific population. Currently, there is a need for the delivery of low-cost exercise programming, by qualified personnel, geared towards adults diagnosed with ASD and an ID.

Objectives: To design an adapted physical exercise (APEX) program for adults with ASD and an ID, which undergraduate and graduate students (“trainers”) would deliver free of charge.

Methods: Eleven adults diagnosed with ASD and an ID (age range = 20-61 years; 2 females) participated in a 12-week exercise program. Each participant was paired with a trainer to complete two 90-minute exercise sessions per week. The sessions included a warm-up, a 6-station exercise circuit, sports and games, and a cool-down. Before the start of the program, the trainers received instruction in the areas of adapted exercise technique, progressions and participant interaction. Trainers were required to record the daily exercise routine (sets, repetitions, weight) as well as document their participant’s overall progress in a weekly writing assignment. Fitness testing (including a sit-and-reach test for flexibility and grip strength test using a hand dynamometer) was conducted at the beginning, middle, and end of the program, as well as four weeks after the completion of the program to assess retention.

Results: All eleven participants completed the full 12-week program. All participants progressed in terms of repetitions, sets, and weight lifted. Many participants also progressed in terms of skill development (e.g., being able to jump rope or rally with a badminton racket). Eighty percent of the participants showed improved flexibility at the end of the program compared to baseline, but only one of those participants had maintained the improvement at retention. Ninety percent of the participants showed improved maximum grip strength in one or both hands, 70 % of which maintained the improvement at retention. Feedback from the trainers indicated an increased confidence and comfort level in working with these individuals.

Conclusions: The APEX program provided a no-cost opportunity for adults with ASD and an ID to participate in sports/physical activity, while simultaneously providing students with a rare and valuable opportunity to gain hands-on experience in working with these individuals. By the conclusion of the program, all participants made progressions within their program and were able to execute the exercises with proper technique. Improvements in fitness level are possible, but continued engagement is needed in order to retain the improvements.