Recreational Sports/Exercise

Description: Attendance at sports classes such as swimming, gymnastics, or martial arts to give the child opportunities to develop athletic skills and interact, participate in group activities, and interact with other children.

Examples: antecedent exercise, play groups, Brain Gym

Research Summary: Recreational sports may be a healthy and enjoyable activity, affording opportunities to generalize skills learned in therapy or school programs. However, their effects on behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have not been evaluated in scientific studies with strong experimental designs. Activities such as Brain Gym, which involves movements such as stretching exercises, may be similarly healthy and enjoyable but have not been shown to change behaviors associated with ASD.

Antecedent exercise, in which an individual exercises on a regular schedule, may reduce aggression or repetitive behaviors for some individuals with autism spectrum disorders (Celiberti, Bobo, Kelly, Harris, & Handleman, 1997; Rosenthal-Malek & Mitchell, 1997).

Some studies suggest that simply placing children with autism spectrum disorders in settings with typical peers, without any other intervention, may increase their social interactions (Lord & Hopkins, 1986) and reduce their repetitive behaviors (McGee, Paradis, & Feldman, 1993), but other studies have not shown these effects (Strain, 1983). Thus, additional research is needed on whether simply placing children with autism spectrum disorders in settings with typical peers is effective. However, there is strong evidence from multiple studies that placing children with autism spectrum disorders in settings with typically developing peers who have been taught to serve as tutors or models is effective in increasing social interactions (McConnell, 2002).

Recommendations: Recreational sports may have health benefits, may be an enjoyable leisure activity for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and, in some cases, may help prevent problem behavior such as aggression. Sports also may afford opportunities for socialization, particularly if peers who have been taught to serve as tutors or models are available during the activity.

Selected References:

Selected scientific studies:

Celiberti, D. A., Bobo, H. E., Kelly, K. S., Harris, S. L., & Handleman, J. L. (1997). The differential and temporal effects of antecedent exercise on the self-stimulatory behavior of a child with autism. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 18, 139-150.

Lord, C., & Hopkins, J. M. (1986). The social behavior of autistic children with younger and same-age nonhandicapped peers. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 16, 249-262.

McGee, G. G., Paradis, T., & Feldman, R. S. (1993). Free effects of integration on levels of autistic behavior. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 13, 57-67.

Rosenthal-Malek, A., & Mitchell, S. (1997). The effects of exercise on the self-stimulatory behaviors and positive responding of adolescents with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 27, 193-202.

Strain, P. S. (1983). Generalization of autistic children’s social behavior change: Effects of developmentally integrated and segregated settings. Analysis and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities, 3, 23-34.

Systematic reviews of scientific studies:

McConnell, S. (2002). Interventions to facilitate social interaction for young children with autism: Review of available research and recommendations for educational intervention and future research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 351-372