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Autistic Kids Inactive, Yet Similar Fitness Levels to Peers

Kids with Autism Inactive, Yet Similar Fitness Levels to Peers

New research discovers that children with autism are more sedentary and inactive than their developing peers.

Oregon State University investigators found that children with autism averaged 50 minutes less a day of moderate physical activity and 70 minutes more each day of sitting.

However, in the small study of 29 children, some with autism and some without, children with autism perform as well as their typical peers on fitness assessments such as body mass index, aerobic fitness levels and flexibility.

Megan MacDonald, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences believes the study should now be performed on a larger group of subjects.

Overall, researchers were pleased to discover that children with autism have generally similar fitness levels to that of typically developing peers.

“These kids, compared to their peers, are similarly fit,” MacDonald said.

“That’s really exciting, because it means those underlying fitness abilities are there.”

The findings are published in the journal “Autism Research and Treatment.”

For the study, researchers tested the fitness and physical activity levels of 17 children with autism and 12 children without autism.

The fitness assessments, conducted in the Movement Studies in Disability Lab at OSU, included a 20-meter, multi-stage shuttle run to measure aerobic fitness; a sit-and-reach test to measure flexibility and a strength test to measure handgrip strength; as well as height, weight and body mass index measurements.

The fitness tests were selected in part because they are commonly used in schools, MacDonald said.

Children in the study also wore accelerometers for a week to measure their movement, and parents filled out supplemental forms to report other important information.

Even though they were more sedentary, the children with autism lagged behind their peers on only one fitness measure, the strength test.

The results were surprising but also encouraging because they show that children with autism are essentially on par with their peers when it comes to physical fitness activities, MacDonald said.

“That’s really important for parents and teachers to understand, because it opens the door for them to participate in so many activities,” she said.

More research is needed to determine why children with autism tend to be more sedentary, MacDonald said.

It may be that children with autism have fewer opportunities to participate in organized sports or physical education activities, but if that is the case, it needs to change, she said.

“They can do it. Those abilities are there,” she said. “We need to work with them to give them opportunities.”

MacDonald encourages parents to make physical activity such as a daily walk or trip to the park part of the family’s routine.

She also calls for adaptive physical education programs or school-based programs designed around a child’s abilities and needs.

Some communities also offer physical fitness programs such as soccer clubs that are inclusive for children with autism or other disabilities, she said.

“Physical fitness and physical activity are so important for living a healthy life, and we learn those behaviors as children,” MacDonald said.

“Anything we can do to help encourage children with autism to be more active is beneficial.”

Source: Oregon State University

Kids with Autism Inactive, Yet Similar Fitness Levels to Peers

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Kids with Autism Inactive, Yet Similar Fitness Levels to Peers. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Sep 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.