Physical activity interventions in children and youth with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review


Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is recognized as one of the most common developmental disabilities, affecting 1 in 200 Canadian children.  There is a tendency within this population toward lower cardiovascular fitness, poor motor skills, higher percentage of body fat and lower maximal heart rate compared to their peers. The majority of evidence on physical activity (PA) interventions for children with ASD has focused on behavioural outcomes such as a reduction in maladaptive behaviours, with little attention directed towards health-related outcomes. The objective of this review was to examine behavioural interventions aimed at increasing PA behaviour and/or health-related fitness in children with ASD. Method:  Following a standardized protocol, a systematic review was conducted using electronic databases (e.g., CINAHL, EMBASE, MEDLINE, PubMed, PsycINFO), and a range of search terms. Results: A total of seven studies (Nparticipants = 52; Mage = 13.3 yrs; 79% male) were included in the review. The length of the PA interventions ranged from 6 to 36 weeks. The frequency of the training occurred most commonly 2 days per week, with individual session durations ranging from 20 to 60 minutes. The majority (57%) of the interventions were between light to moderate intensity. Five of the seven interventions were solely aerobic activities, while the remaining two interventions consisted of aerobic and strength-training components. Conclusion: Overall, there is limited research examining the effects of PA interventions on the PA behaviour and/or fitness of children and youth with ASD. Findings from this review indicate that PA interventions are beneficial for children and youth with ASD, in terms of improving physical health and well-being, as well as offering alternative modes of therapy.  A recommendation for future interventions is to employ an objective measure of physical activity (e.g., accelerometer) as a precise method of assessing the success of a program.