Benefits of a Fitness Program for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Physical, Cognitive, and Behavioral Outcomes

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 3, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
S. L. Jackson, T. Winkelman, E. Hamo, D. Stahl and J. McPartland, Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT
Background: Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) engage in significantly less physical activities than typically developing peers (e.g. Pan, 2009). This sedentary lifestyle can result in serious negative consequences on physical (e.g. cardiovascular disease, obesity), behavioral (e.g. emotional regulation, sleep disturbance), cognitive (e.g. memory, concentration), and emotional (e.g. stress, depression, anxiety) well-being -- all common areas of difficulty in ASD. While there is an abundance of research demonstrating that regular physical activity can have a positive impact on the above issues in typically developing individuals (Fedewa & Ahn, 2011), research on this topic for individuals with ASD is limited.

Objectives: The current study examined the physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional benefits of a specialized physical exercise program in a sample of individuals with ASD.

Methods: Data was collected on 11 individuals with ASD (82% male; mean age=14.73 years, SD=6.59) from the ASD Fitness Center in Orange, CT, at baseline and following 15 workout sessions. Physical data (e.g. body mass index (BMI), exercise assessments) were collected by center staff. Behavioral/cognitive/emotional data were collected by research staff via parent-report questionnaires: the Child Sleep Habits Questionnaire (CSHQ; sleep disturbances), Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS-2; social abilities/restricted and repetitive behaviors), and the Behavior Assessment System for Children (BASC-3; behavioral and emotional problems/adaptive skills/executive functioning). The average duration between baseline and follow-up data collection was 14.5 weeks (SD=7.23). Additional data collection and BASC-3 analyses are ongoing.

Results: Preliminary analyses found significant improvement in core strength [increased time holding a plank position, t(10)=-2.4, p<.05] and marginal changes in lower-body strength [increased number of hurdles, t(10)=-2.1, p=.06; increased hamstring bridge time, t(10)=-2.2, p=.06]. Restricted and repetitive behaviors were significantly reduced following the 15 workout sessions [t(10)=2.5, p<.05]. Though average CSHQ scores were reduced from baseline (M=43.3, SD=8.4) to follow-up (M=41.6, SD=6.8), this difference was not statistically significant. Reductions in BMI following the program were associated with reduced sleepiness during the day (r=0.64, p<.05) and improved social cognition (r=0.61, p<.05).

Conclusions: Preliminary results provide empirical support for the effectiveness of an ASD-specific exercise program in improving physical strength and reducing restricted and repetitive behaviors in individuals with ASD. These preliminary findings additionally suggest that reductions in BMI may improve daytime sleepiness and social cognition in this population. Forthcoming analyses will explore the behavioral and emotional impacts of this exercise program, broadening our understanding of the benefits of regular physical activity for individuals with ASD. Considering the potential wide-ranging benefits that regular physical activity can have on the well-being of individuals with ASD, it is critical for more research to be done on this topic to inform development of, and participation in, exercise programs designed specifically for this population.