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Physical Education for Children With Autism

author image Caroline Thompson
Caroline Thompson is a professional photojournalist who has been working for print and online publications since 1999. Her work has appeared in the "Sacramento Bee," "People Magazine," "Newsweek" and other publications. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in photojournalism from California State University at Hayward and a personal trainer certification from the university's Health and Fitness Institute.
Physical Education for Children With Autism
A young girl throwing a soccer ball. Photo Credit: Barry Austin/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Physically active children have better circulation, muscle tone and maintain a healthy weight. While physical activity is healthy for all children, goes even farther with autistic children. Autistic children experience an increased attention span after aerobic activity. Physical education with autistic children is also effective at controlling some inappropriate behaviors associated with autism, according to John O’Connor in an article published in the Summer 2000 issue of “Palestra.”

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Understanding Autistim

Autism is a complex developmental disability that is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain. Autistic children experience difficulties in interpersonal relationships that manifest in avoiding affection, play or participation in physical activities, avoiding eye contact and being unable to relate normally to other people and situations. Including autistic children in physical education is complicated by autistic children’s inability to cope with normal tactile stimuli. The result is that many autistic children possess low levels of physical fitness.


Including autism children in physical education programs with normal children poses many challenges for both the teacher and other children. Many teachers are not trained to deal with developmentally disabled children and can become frustrated or feel uncomfortable about including autistic children in general classes, notes lead author Zhang in an article published in the March 2007 issue of “The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance.” Autistic children are not motivated to play in games with other children and may engage in inappropriate behavior because of sensory over-stimulation. Instructional programs that include only autistic children have similar challenges with inappropriate behaviors, reluctance to participate, stimulus distractions, short attention span and abrupt outbursts or regression during exercise.

Instructional Guidelines

Overlooking some inappropriate behavior is necessary in the initial teaching of physical education to autistic children. Exposing the child to exercise will have more benefits than upsetting the child by trying to correct bad behavior in the early stages. Exercise and sports may help to prevent problem behavior such as aggression, and it may help socialization in autistic children, according to the Association For Science In Autism Treatment. Teachers need to use creative techniques to increase their participation in physical activities. Another method to help autistic children learn new physical skills is the task-variation method, where maintenance tasks are changed every two or three minutes. This helps to increase the attention and retention of learned activities in the autistic child.

Exercise Guidelines

The design of physical education programs focuses on overall physical activity and managing inappropriate behavior. Physical activities are rhythmic. Large-muscle activities used are continuous such as running, hopping, jumping or cycling. Physical activity levels are increased slowly as the child learns and performs new exercises. Music can be added for background or as a reward for positive behavior. Audiotapes are available that contain sequenced activities to develop cardiovascular fitness. Autistic children can benefit from pre-designed video programs that use music and visual cues to teach aerobic exercise.

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