Autism – Exercising the power of a multidisciplinary approach

In the most recent census, there was said to be 164,000 Australian’s living with Autism Spectrum disorder (ASD). With diagnosis rates on the rise (42.1% increase since 2012) and recent studies showing the profound impact exercise can play in the management of this condition, we sat down with Clinical Psychologist Megan Garth to discuss all things ASD.

· What is ASD?

· How does exercise play a crucial role in the management of ASD

· The importance of a multi-disciplinary approach

· Key tips on how to approach safe and effective exercise


What is ASD?

“ASD is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects a person’s ability to interact and communicate socially and can present with restricted and repetitive behaviours” says Megan. Research shows, males are 4.1 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD and the diagnosis is often prevalent during the earlier years of an individual’s life span. Individuals living with ASD can exhibit the following behavioural traits:

· Difficulty holding a conversation

· Trouble with play skills from an early age

· Difficulty comprehending how others may be feeling

· Reduced understanding of humour

· Specialised interests or repetitive behavioural traits

· Special sensory differences

Megan emphasises the importance of considering these traits when working with, assessing and prescribing exercise for an individual with ASD. As a clinical exercise physiologist this is at the forefront of our mind when exercising with this population.


How does exercise benefit those living with ASD?

· Improves motor control

· Enhances social and emotional well-being

· Develops muscular strength and endurance

· Increases aerobic capacity

· Helps improve sleep quality

· Manages common co-morbidities (the most common being anxiety)


How much Exercise should we be aiming for?

The guidelines for those living with ASD are not dissimilar to those of the general population. Adults aged 18 to 64 complete a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity (or a combination of both) and at least 2 days of muscle strengthening exercise (resistance training). Children aged 5 – 12 should aim to accumulate 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity activity every day.

It is important that increases in physical activity are graded and tapered to the client’s ability. Megan recommends a multidisciplinary approach, utilising the skills of a combination of allied health professionals with experience in ASD. A clinical exercise physiologist will perform a thorough assessment of the physical function of the individual taking into consideration all of the aforementioned factors to ensure the appropriate programming.


Key tips in creating an exercise program for those living with ASD

1. Build a strong rapport

2. Routine

3. Set goals

4. Use visual cues

5. Incorporate fun and meaningful activities

6. Introduce team sports


To conclude, Megan recommends her patients engage in a safe and effective physical activity regime. Megan emphasises the importance of individualisation within this population. In her experience, the most effective approach incorporates an appropriate multidisciplinary team environment, to ensure support is not only provided for the individual living with ASD but for their family and friends.

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