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Physical Activities for Autistic Children

author image Maggie New
Maggie New began writing professionally in 1995. New was an editorial assistant for the music magazine “Ear” and reviewed plays for various newsletters. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Hunter College and is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Peru State College.
Physical Activities for Autistic Children
A young autistic boy colors in with the help of his teacher. Photo Credit SerrNovik/iStock/Getty Images

Every child needs exercise, and children with autism are no exception. In fact, for autistic children, physical exercise can have additional behavioral benefits if certain precautions and techniques are used. All the usual gross motor activities of running, walking, jumping, cycling and others can be engaged in and enjoyed by children with autism.

Negative Affects

Because children with autism relate to their environment differently than other children, engaging in physical activity in an environment they are not used to can be scary to them. For instance, wide-open spaces might be disorienting, and loud noises -- quite common in a gym -- can startle autistic children. As a result, your autistic child might display behaviors like toe-walking, flapping hands or angry outbursts, among other things, in these environments.

Preventing Melt-Downs

It is possible to preempt or at least reduce acting-out behaviors by preparing your child in advance. "Palaestra," a journal on physical education for people with disabilities, suggests communicating with your child about what to expect. Be creative and adapt the activities to your child's needs. For instance, since autistic children often have a short attention span, avoid long periods with the same activity. Preparing for transitions ahead of time by letting your child know in advance may prevent tantrums. Also, initially focus on the modality your child prefers, which helps prevent sensory overload.

Expected Behavior Changes

Studies have shown that five to eight minutes of aerobic activity reduces self-stimulating behavior, according to the Paediatrics & Child Health website. In addition, "Palaestra" reports that children with autism who had physical activities added to their traditional behavior management plan exhibited an increase in attention, an increase in on-task behavior and an increase in the level of correct responses.

Games to Play

Children with autism also get benefits from physical activities that involve small-motor skills, such as games that require touching objects, interacting by taking turns, making eye contact -- something autistic children often find uncomfortable -- and learning to tolerate non-solid textures, like paint. Some games you can play, together with other kids or one on one, include follow the leader; hide and seek; painting; preferably with fingers; and the grab-bag game during which fun items are placed inside a bag and your child feels for them and tries to guess what they are.

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