The research is clear: autistic adults are spending way too much time on the couch. While children with autism may flourish by taking advantage of numerous opportunities for group exercise and team sports, these activities become increasingly scarce after they “age out” of school at age 21. Adults with autism have been found to exercise significantly less than their neurotypical peers, and this has been linked to multiple health problems such as obesity (Hilgenkamp et al., 2014). Yet, researchers are finding that the presence of exercise, as well as the support system that comes with group activity and a team-like setting, can improve health, social challenges, and the overall wellness and lifestyle of adults with autism.
Public Health Implications
The importance of exercise among adults with autism has only recently garnered interest among researchers. According to David Geslak (2016), a leading researcher and personal trainer for people with autism, despite exercise gaining attention within the last ten years as a form of treatment, caregivers often undervalue and poorly prioritize physical activity when forming treatment plans. In the worst of cases, failing to incorporate exercise into a treatment plan can result in the adult not engaging in exercise at all. Given the effectiveness of exercise towards enhancing one’s sense of wellness, neglecting this aspect of health may have an adverse impact on the mental health and lifestyle of adults with autism (Hilgenkamp et al., 2014).
One of the most profound effects of the lack of exercise in autistic adults is the consequences on their physical health. Croen et al. (2015) conducted a study on adults with autism designed to examine the various health difficulties that they face. The team reports that autistic adults are often plagued by obesity, especially in comparison to their neurotypical peers (Croen et al., 2015). Interestingly, antipsychotic medications that are frequently prescribed and used by those with autism may result in increased weight gain to the point of obesity (Croen et al., 2015). Obesity is particularly concerning because it can lead to other dangerous conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. The study population was also found to be suffering from increased rates of hypertension and diabetes, which demonstrates how widespread and unhealthy the effects of a sedentary lifestyle can be (Croen et al., 2015).
Developing meaningful social connections is crucial for independence, and many adults with autism struggle in this area. In addition, fewer opportunities for exercise in a group setting can negatively affect one’s social skills. This lack of socialization may lead to mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and aggression (LaLonde et al., 2014). However, as demonstrated in a 2015 review of literature on adults with autism and physical activity by Karl Kunzi, the presence of exercise, as well as the support system that comes with group activity and a team-like setting, can improve health, social challenges, and the overall wellness and lifestyle of adults with autism. Kunzi found that despite the underutilization of exercise as a treatment option, participation in group exercise can be an efficient way for adults with autism to improve their social skills. Autistic adults participating in group exercise were found to experience improvements in self-control, assertiveness, and self-esteem regarding body image (Kunzi, 2015). In the review, Kunzi praises the security, discipline, and rule-following environment provided by team sports. These factors address problems caused by deficient socialization by creating a structured, integrative environment that fosters social interaction amongst peers. Furthermore, Kunzi found that the team environment provided by group exercise helps individuals interact with peers and find a support system.
While team sports may benefit autistic adults in many areas, some individuals may prefer to work with a one-on-one trainer. We know that social challenges can negatively affect one’s relationship with exercise, and it is important that autistic adults and their trainers build a foundation of trust (Gelsak, 2016). According to Gelsak (2016), command-based communication is often ineffective in engaging the client in physical activity, and a more creative communication strategy may be necessary. Additionally, some adults with autism may not communicate through speech, which may require a trainer to be in-tune with behavioral cues in order to respond appropriately. To create a positive experience, trainers may need to adopt unconventional approaches and make a concerted effort to understand the likes, dislikes, and needs of an autistic client. Simple adaptations that incorporate the interests of an autistic client can be effective in building a positive rapport. For example, if a client is fascinated with bright colors, chasing colorful balloons around the gym may be a more motivating form of exercise than simply walking on the treadmill.
Providing Better Solutions
Exercise is necessary to help alleviate health problems that may be brought on by medication or a sedentary lifestyle, as well as helping to improve the social skills adults with autism need for independence. While other forms of treatment have been prioritized over exercise, it has continued to increase in popularity as its effectiveness in combating obesity and aiding social interaction becomes more evident. It is important to continue to provide more opportunities for adults with autism to engage in exercise in order to improve their quality of life as well as their overall wellness.
To learn more about Madison House Autism Foundation, visit the website at www.MadisonHouseAutism.org.
Croen, L. A., Zerbo, O., Qian, Y., Massolo, M. L., Rich, S., Sidney, S., & Kripke, C. (2015). The health status of adults on the autism spectrum. Autism, 19(7), 814-823.
Geslak, D. S. (2016). Exercise, Autism, and New Possibilities. Palaestra, 30(2).
Hilgenkamp, T. I., van Wijck, R., & Evenhuis, H. M. (2014). Subgroups associated with lower physical fitness in older adults with ID: Results of the HA-ID study. Research in developmental disabilities, 35(2), 439-447.
Kunzi, K. (2015). Improving Social Skills of Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder Through Physical Activity, Sports, and Games: A Review of the Literature. Adultspan Journal, 14(2), 100-113.
LaLonde, K. B., MacNeill, B. R., Eversole, L. W., Ragotzy, S. P., & Poling, A. (2014). Increasing physical activity in young adults with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 8(12), 1679-1684.