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Autism Spectrum Disorder & Exercise

Written by Jon. V | Provisional Psychologist, PsychPhys™

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are pervasive developmental disorders where individuals are deficient in their social and communication skills, as well as displaying restrictive repetitive behaviours.

Research into physical activity and ASD has discovered that physical activity brings benefits relative to motor development; decreasing restrictive, repetitive and self-injurious behaviours. There are also effects in the social-emotional states of those with ASD, improvements in executive functions (i.e., working memory, cognitive attention, and goal setting) and benefits for self-regulation of emotions (Sorensen & Zarrett, 2014). A meta-analysis of sixteen studies of exercise based interventions for those with ASD has reported notable positive effects in two of the main core symptoms of ASD; motor and social deficits (Sowa & Meulenbroek, 2012)

For those with ASD, after exercise there are decreases in aggression and stereotypy. This is likely not to be due to fatigue because motor behaviour, academic performance and focus on tasks all increase following exercise. Individuals with ASD can benefit from exercise programs that incorporate physical activity (Lang et al., 2010)

Exercise programs can be tailored to each individual based on their capabilities. An example of an exercise program is a jogging intervention which Andy (2020) conducted for approximately half of 27 children with ASD over a 12-week period. The group that received exercise demonstrated a significant improvement in emotional regulation and reduction in problematic behaviours.


  • Andy, C. Y. (2020). Brief report: Impact of a physical exercise intervention on emotion regulation and behavioral functioning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 50(11), 4191-4198.
  • Lang, R., Koegel, L. K., Ashbaugh, K., Regester, A., Ence, W., & Smith, W. (2010). Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(4), 565-576.
  • Sorensen, C., & Zarrett, N. (2014). Benefits of physical activity for adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: A comprehensive review. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1(4), 344-353.
  • Sowa, M., & Meulenbroek, R. (2012). Effects of physical exercise on autism spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis. Research in autism spectrum disorders, 6(1), 46-57.