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Teenagers with autism avoid exercise

by  /  7 February 2014
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Teenagers with autism or other psychiatric disorders are far less likely to exercise or play team sports than are their typical peers, reports a Norwegian study published 22 January in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health.

This is an important issue because these adolescents with autism may set themselves up for mental and physical health problems and miss opportunities to make friends, the researchers say.

In the study, nearly 9,000 Norwegian teenagers, including 566 with a psychiatric disorder, answered questions about their physical activity levels. The difference was sizable: Roughly half of children with a psychiatric disorder fall into the lowest activity bracket — exercising only once a week or less — compared with one-quarter of the typical teenagers.

Of the 39 teenagers with autism in the study, 22 — or 56 percent — exercise only once a week or less, and just 3 of them exercise four or more times a week. Only teenagers who suffer from depression or other mood disorders exercise less. Of the 87 teenagers in that group, 53, or 62 percent, exercise once a week or less.

Roughly 20 percent of teenagers who have anxiety disorders or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and 40 percent of the typical teenagers exercise four or more times a week.

This pattern of inactivity does not bode well for the health and social lives of young people with autism. Nearly 20 percent of toddlers with autism are obese, compared with 10 percent of children in the general population. Once they reach their teenage years, children with autism are twice as likely as their peers to spend most of their free time in front of a television or computer.

Team sports can also provide an opportunity to make friends, a skill that doesn’t come naturally to many people with the disorder. Unfortunately, only seven, or 19 percent, of the teenagers with autism compete in sports such as soccer, compared with 25 percent of teenagers with mood disorders, 33 percent with anxiety disorders, 37 percent with ADHD and 60 percent of the controls.

Social deficits, one of the core symptoms of autism, may make it difficult for these teenagers to interact with their peers in the setting of team sports. It’s also possible that common motor problems such as clumsiness and poor muscle tone hamper their athletic skills, the researchers say.

In addition, about 30 percent of children with autism have ADHD characteristics. Although teenagers with ADHD alone are more active than the autism group, they still exercise less than the typical teenagers do. This may be because young people with ADHD tend to be aggressive and have emotional outbursts.

The survey’s findings may explain why teenagers with autism prefer individual sports, such as running or martial arts. About 55 percent of those with autism and nearly 70 percent of teenagers with ADHD are active in some kind of solitary sport, although the proportion is still lower than the 85 percent of typical teenagers who are engaged in these activities.


4 responses to “Teenagers with autism avoid exercise”

  1. Kristi…mom of daughter with autism says:

    How could they miss the obvious. THEY AREN’T WELCOMED IN TEAM SPORTS most of the time. The neurotypical kids nor their parents want to slow down the team to move at a mentally disabled childs speed.

  2. Stephanie...mom of teen son with autism says:

    Agreed. It is hard to find team sports for our kids. We tried Special Olympics but my son didn’t like all of the cheering. Many kids with Autism are sensitive to noise and sounds. Currently, my son walks 20 minutes on a treadmill and rides 20 minutes on exercise bike as part of his school day. I take him to the mall on some weekends and we walk all the way around (1 mile). Making friends is a much more complex and challenging issue.

  3. Sarah says:

    and why do you think that is?? The kids aren’t avoiding excercise so much as they are avoiding the sensory overlosd that comes with team sports. My son is getting excercise but in individual sports. He particiaptes in horseback riding, track, swimming, water sports and ice skating. He loves to jump on his trampoline. My son could never do team sports because of his sensory issues and difficulty following directions. It would be torture.

    I also agree with what Kristi said there are limited opportunites for our kids in mainstream sports programs and coaches are not always receptive to including our kids “you either make the cut or you don’t”.

  4. Sue Gerrard says:

    Not to mention the hypermobility issues experienced by many young people with autism. Consultant has advised my son to avoid some forms of exercise because tissue between his ribs was inflamed. It only took six years of him complaining of chest pain before he was referred. Why are we still lumping physical signs and symptoms together with behavioural ones? This is just sloppy science.

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