Exercise for Children with Autism: How Much, How Often
Your average neurotypically developing child requires several hundred if not several thousand repetitions of a movement in order to solidify that action or create what is called “muscle memory.” Muscle memory means that we have learned a motor pattern or movement so well that is has become part of our repertoire, something we can do without much planning or consideration. Some examples of typically learned motor patterns include:
– And, of course, riding a bike
For children with autism, learning a motor pattern may be complicated by several factors including preexisting movement deficits, aversion to movement and new activities, delays in cognitive processing, and difficulties kinesthetic awareness. When we can get a child on the autism spectrum to engage in exercise, the process of developing a muscle memory pattern may often take exponentially longer than teaching a neurotypical or normally-developing peer. This would require many more repetitions of a movement in order to master it. Of course then several potential issues arise:
1) Repetitive activities becoming boring or even more aversive
2) Frustration from continuous prompting or guidance through and exercise
3) Prompt dependence
I will say that it does often take a while to teach new movement activities to children with autism (requiring patience, persistence, and some keen prompting), however the more we revisit the activity the quicker the athlete will master it. Rather than a series of mass trials within a small window of time, having the ability to teach a new skill throughout the day with high rates of reinforcement, consistency in teaching, and across various environments is a phenomenal way to build generalization into the program and avoid burnout both for the instructor and the young athlete.
If movement cannot be taught throughout the day (it SHOULD be but that’s another argument), daily practice of 1-2 similar exercises (such as squatting and lunging, or taking big steps) can be performed. Regular exposure to the activity (5-15 minutes of practice) can result in dramatic benefit both physically and in self-efficacy, self-esteem, and independence.