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Perceptions of Physical Activity Participation

Written by Rhys. J | Accredited Exercise Physiologist

Study Highlight: Arnell, S., Jerlinder, K., & Lundqvist, L-O. (2018). Perceptions of Physical Activity Participation Among Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Conceptual Model of Conditional Participation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48, 1792-1802

One of my favourite studies that I have read to date has been a study authored by Arnell et al. (2018) utilising interviews to uncover perceptions and beliefs around physical activity participation. To me, this specific paper is able to provide good insight into the thoughts and perceptions of autistic adolescent individuals (12 to 16 year olds) when they are having to participate in a variety of different types of physical activities.

Study Participants

Within the study included 24 (17 boys, 7 girls) autistic adolescents between the ages of 12 and 16 years old and who attended grades 6 to 9 in Sweden. All students followed the national curriculum of Swedish mainstream compulsory schooling; however, 13 adolescents participated in a mainstream classroom education whilst 11 participated in an adapted form of schooling (e.g., small group education or home education). The different types of schooling allow for a more broad understanding into how different contexts may impact the perceptions or overall experiences of each individual.

The ‘Five’ Subthemes

Following the interview process, the researchers were able to form links between what each individual was saying and five different subthemes:

  • Competence and Confidence;
  • Motivation;
  • Adjustment to External Demands;
  • Predictability;
  • Freedom of Choice

Competence & Confidence:

Competence and Confidence relate to how confident a person feels towards a specific activity and their ability to engage in the activity successfully. Both are generally activity and skill specific and the feelings and abilities someone has towards one activity may not translate into another activity (e.g., good at kicking but not throwing). Below are some quotes from various interviews to provide more context.

“I have got the knack of the sport so damn easily and I have sort of developed quite quickly in it (Boy, 1)” 

“it’s hard when I don’t get the flow that’s needed and even if I plan it, it doesn’t turn out right (Boy, 20).”

“There was such a terrible lot of anxiety involved with PE…A whole day could be ruined just because of the PE…I almost didn’t want to go to school if we were supposed to have PE that day (Girl, 15).”

To summarise, if someone demonstrates high confidence and skill competency, they are more likely to engage in physical activity. Conversely, those with low confidence and skill competency will tend to avoid physical activity.


Motivation relates to the overall willingness a person will demonstrate towards actively pursuing and participating in something. Motivations can either be intrinsic (of an internal basis e.g., enjoyment) or extrinsic (of an external basis e.g., reward); however, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other, but it can be a combination of both. Trying to create an environment that will help individuals feel motivated will always be more important than trying to fit them into a box. Below are some quotes to provide more context:

“To me personally it is not important at all [to take part in PE]…the reason for me to take part is that I don’t want to fail…if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t participate (Boy, 20).

“I run…want to keep fit, I don’t want to get fat…I care about my weight (Girl, 10).”

“Football is useless… the only thing you learn from football is to run chasing after a ball, like a dog (Boy, 18).”

To summarise, the enjoyment we get and the perceived meaningfulness of the activity can both impact our motivations quite considerably. Activities that are more enjoyable and that hold meaning to the individual will always be more desirable.

Adjustment to External Demands

The external demands of a particular activity relate to the various contextual demands that can be present at any given time. These demands can often be placed into either social demands or environmental demands. This can include if the activity involves the presence of other people and also if the activity is outdoors/indoors, including the weather or crowds and noise to name a couple. below are some quotes to provide more context:

“It is hard and tiring to have to adjust to what other people say and to have activities together, then I lose interest (Boy, 20)”

“I don’t like being watched… it’s tough…I’m scared of being judged …I don’t want to be like others but I want to do it my own way without being judged (Girl, 6).”

“I work harder, have more go when it is a competition, and the results are usually better since it’s fun to win” (Boy, 21).”

To summarise, our ability to react to any external demands of an activity will have a direct positive or negative impact on our ability to participate. If we are better able to adapt to any social demands (e.g., peer play) or environmental demands (e.g., noises/weather), then we are more likely to be willing to participate at any given time.


Predictability relates to how predictable an activity is, along with its various elements. Oftentimes our comfort in performing a specific activity is tied to how well we know it as embracing the unknown can generally lead towards experiencing more anxiety and stress. This will often include being aware of the physical activity itself; being aware of what’s required of us or the expectations; being aware of how we might need to move; and being aware of the environment the activity is held in, among others. Below are some quotes to provide more context:

“I tend to lose confidence…it sort of depends on how many times I’ve done it and whether I had fun…then it usually gets easier, anyway (Girl, 4).”

“It might help to have a friend by your side, someone who can motivate you…someone who knows your ways…someone who dares to push you (Boy, 3)”

To summarise, we are able to have a positive influence on a person’s willingness to participate by making an activity more predictable or by reducing the amount of unknowns associated with an activity. Various strategies can prove useful including using visual schedules; using visuals of the specific activity (e.g., photos of kicking a ball); using demonstrations to help with mirroring; using hands on assistance; and using lots of repetition to help familiarisation, to name a few

Freedom of Choice

As the name implies, freedom of choice relates to our capacity for free and autonomous decision making. Certain contexts may not grant us this autonomy; however, if we are going to willingly participate in a physical activity, allowing for autonomous decision making can increase participation through being able to manipulate any or all elements of an activity (e.g., the difficulty of the activity). Below are some quotes to provide more context:

 “I hate it when there are so many team activities, then you can’t choose who you want to work with and it gets scary” (Girl, 4).”

“I have spoken to the PE teacher and we’ve decided that if there is something I don’t like then I don’t have to join in…more often than not I’m in… [refused] dancing and football (Boy, 3)”

To summarise, we should prioritise allowing for autonomous decision making as opposed to having someone feel like their participation is forced. Promoting autonomy can also be linked towards helping someone feel more confident in their choices while also allowing for progressively greater activity independence. Further, it can also show that you’re there to support them which can help create a more comfortable and accepting environment to help them feel safe.

To Keep in Mind…

The biggest takeaway message for me from reading this particular study was that in order to promote conditional participation in physical activity, we have to accept the most appropriate answer being….It Depends.

Physical activity participation will often depend on how well we are able to address the various sub themes above. This will ultimately have an influence on how comfortable, safe, and motivated someone feels towards any physical activity in general.