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The Challenges and Benefits of Exercise for Kids on the Autism Spectrum March 21, 2019

North Bethesda, North Bethesda
The Challenges and Benefits of Exercise for Kids on the Autism Spectrum, North Bethesda, Maryland

Today, I am thrilled to bring you a guest article from an amazing, local organization assisting the special needs community.  I am proud to have Monica Martinez, Executive Director of Partnership for Extraordinary Minds (xMinds), as a partner of Fitness for Health. The mission of xMinds is to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of students on the autism spectrum in Montgomery County, MD. 




Today’s kids are more at risk of becoming obese than in the past.  Autistic kids, generally speaking, are at an even greater risk for developing obesity.  A 2014 study found that kids and teens on the spectrum are more than twice as likely to be overweight, and nearly five times more likely to be obese, than their neurotypical peers. While autistic kids carry the same genetic risk factors for obesity as the general population, they frequently face additional challenges that compound these risk factors, including food selectivity, difficulties with motor planning, and the use of certain medications that increase the likelihood of weight gain.


Food Selectivity

One of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.”  Sometimes the need for sameness experienced by many autistic individuals manifests itself in a restrictive diet.  Some kids will only eat certain foods, which can result in an unbalanced intake of carbohydrates, fats, or other nutrients.  A 2006 study of the eating habits of kids with ASD found that subjects in the study preferred “energy-dense foods,” meaning foods with a high calorie count.  A subsequent study found that autistic kids tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables than their neurotypical peers.  The overwhelming need to maintain consistency and routine in their everyday lives can make it very difficult for kids on the spectrum to explore new flavors and textures.  In addition, the challenges in communication that also characterize ASD makes the use of traditional modes of educating kids about good dietary choices difficult for this population.  Engaging a non-verbal child or teen in a discussion about good dietary practices can be nearly impossible in many circumstances.


Motor Planning

According to a 2016 study, autistic teens were 60 percent less likely to be physically active three or more days a week and 74 percent less likely to play sports than their neurotypical peers.  Some factors that likely contribute to these findings are the social challenges presented by team sports and the motor skills required to engage in sports and physical activity.  Numerous studies have found that young kids on the spectrum often reach developmental milestones for gross motor skills later than their typically developing peers.  Some common challenges are low muscle tone, difficulties with balance, running, and eye-hand coordination.  When skills in these areas lag, kids have a hard time engaging in “motor planning,” or the ability to know and properly sequence the movements that body parts need to make in order to accomplish a physical activity.  Participating in sports not only requires good motor planning, but also usually hinges on social interaction with the other players.  Given that social communication challenges are a fundamental characteristic of autism, kids on the spectrum can be doubly unmotivated to participate in organized physical activities.


Use of Psychotropic Medication

A third factor that contributes to obesity in kids on the autism spectrum is the use of psychotropic medication.  Living in an inherently unpredictable world is incredibly stressful for a person who thrives on routine and repetition.  The constant strain of living in a world not suited to meet these needs can cause irritability and anxiety in autistic individuals.  Often, doctors prescribe anti-psychotic and/ or anti-depressant medications to improve the autistic individual’s quality of life.  Currently, there are only two FDA-approved medications to treat autism – risperidone and aripiprazole.  Weight gain and, frequently, metabolic syndrome are two widely-reported side affects of these drugs.


Mitigating the Risks of Obesity

Given these factors, kids on the spectrum are at greater risk for developing obesity than their peers.  Exercise can mitigate these risks, but how can autistic kids be encouraged to exercise more?  First, helping kids overcome some of their gross motor challenges through physical or occupational therapy can improve their motor planning, a major barrier to participation in organized sports.  Simultaneously, improved self-esteem and sense of self are likely to develop alongside improved motor planning.


Next, finding a place where kids can be motivated by their own interests to become more physically active can be instrumental in increasing activity.  Like typical kids, many kids on the spectrum love their screens.  Given the lack of social demands that screens place on autistic kids, they may be even harder to pry away from screens and send outdoors or to the gym for exercise.  So, it makes sense to use screens and video games as motivators to get kids with ASD moving.  Innovative training centers, such as Fitness for Health, have incorporated technologies that kids love into their exercise and motor skills development programs.


Increasing physical activity in kids with ASD not only improves their chances of maintaining a healthy weight, but it will likely confer the additional benefits of improved self-esteem and social skills.  According to a 2016 article in Spectrum News, several small studies have concluded that “movement-based therapies [for kids on the spectrum] may improve social communication, attention, behavioral issues and performance on academic tasks.”


All in all, increasing physical activity is good for everyone.  For autistic individuals, especially kids, getting up and moving are crucial for creating a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle.


To learn more about how you can support a fulfilling life for kids on the spectrum, join us at our 11th annual Extraordinary Minds in MCPS Forum on Tuesday, April 2, from 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. at Julius West Middle School, 651 Great Falls Rd., Rockville.  Attendance is FREE! Complete details available at


About Fitness for Health:


Fitness for Health and the Center for Communication and Learning are once again offering summer programs in August for children (ages 4-10) and teens (ages 11-16) with social communication challenges. 

  • B Social Therapeutic Summer Program – This program for ages 4-10 will integrate Social Thinking® and movement in collaboration with Sue Abrams, M.A., CCC-SLP, a Speech/Language Pathologist. Concepts will be introduced in a fun and motivating way encouraging participants to explore and improve their social thinking skills and motor development.
  • B Social Team Building for Adolescents with Social Challenges  – This program is specifically geared for students ages 11-16 with ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, Social Communication Disorder and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Our B Social Team Building Program focuses on developing your adolescent’s social competency.   Social Thinking® is more than just about being social. The skills and strategies we teach will impact students’ performance at school, in the community and throughout their lives.


Reimbursement of costs for the program may be available for insurance coverage and/or flexible health spending accounts.  Kaiser Permanente members with prior authorization have a possibility for large savings. 


Attend our Summer Programs Open House on Sunday, March 31, from 5pm – 6pm to learn about our social skills programs, tour our gym, and give your kids the opportunity to meet – and play – with our staff members.  RSVP to