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From Tantrums to Triumph: How Exercise Can Transform Behaviour in Children with Autism

Short On Time? Here Is The Summary.

Exercise can be an effective behaviour management strategy for children with autism. It can help reduce problem behaviours, improve social interaction and communication, and boost self-regulation and self-esteem. To implement an exercise program, it's important to consult with a healthcare professional or therapist, select activities that are enjoyable and motivating, gradually increase intensity and duration, include sensory-rich and multisensory activities, use visual supports and schedules, and set small, achievable goals. Examples of successful exercise programs include structured exercise and horseback riding therapy. However, it's important to remember that exercise should be part of a comprehensive approach that includes other interventions like therapy and education.

Exercise and Autism: How Physical Activity Can Help with Behaviour Management

If you have a loved one with autism, you know that managing their behaviours can be challenging. But did you know that exercise could be a helpful tool in your behaviour management toolkit? In this article, we'll explore the ways in which exercise can benefit individuals with autism and provide tips for incorporating it into your behaviour management plan.

The Benefits of Exercise for People with Autism

There are several ways in which exercise can benefit individuals with autism. For one, it can improve physical health and coordination. This is especially important for children with autism, who may be at higher risk of obesity and other physical health problems. Exercise can also provide opportunities to practice social skills and communication, such as teamwork and turn-taking. It has been shown to improve cognitive function, including attention and concentration, which can be especially beneficial for individuals with autism who may have difficulty with sustained focus. Plus, exercise has a calming effect and may reduce problem behaviours like aggression and tantrums. But how do we get our children with Autism started with exercise?

Tips for Incorporating Exercise into Your Autism Behaviour Management Plan

So how can you get started with using exercise as a behaviour management strategy for your loved one with autism? Here are a few tips:

  • Consult with a healthcare professional like a Clinical Exercise Physiologist. They can help you identify the best activities and goals for your loved one and ensure that the program is safe and appropriate.

  • Choose activities that are enjoyable and age-appropriate. It's important to pick activities that your loved one enjoys and finds motivating. This will increase the chances that they'll participate willingly and experience the benefits of exercise. Make sure to choose activities that are appropriate for your loved one's age and physical abilities.

  • Set achievable goals and celebrate progress. Setting achievable goals can help your loved one feel a sense of accomplishment and encourage them to continue participating in the exercise program. Remember to celebrate progress and recognise their achievements along the way.

  • Use visual supports and prompts to encourage participation. Visual supports, such as pictures or videos, can be helpful for individuals with autism to understand what is expected of them and to participate in the activity. Prompts, such as verbal or physical prompts, can also be used to remind your loved one of the steps involved in the activity.

  • Incorporate sensory-rich experiences. Many individuals with autism have sensory processing issues and may be more sensitive to certain stimuli. Incorporating sensory-rich experiences, such as playing with textures, jumping on a trampoline or listening to music, can make the exercise experience more engaging and enjoyable for your loved one.

Examples of the Effectiveness of Exercise as a Behaviour Management Strategy for Autism

There is research to support the use of exercise as a behaviour management strategy for autism, as well as personal accounts from individuals and their caregivers. For example, one study found that a program of daily physical activity was effective in reducing problem behaviours in children with autism (Gadow & Sprafkin, 2002). Another study found that a program of physical activity and leisure education improved social skills and communication in adolescents with autism (Santos et al., 2014). And many caregivers have reported success in using exercise as a way to calm their loved ones with autism and improve their overall quality of life.

In addition to this, there are also many specific examples of individuals with autism who have successfully used exercise as a behaviour management strategy. One such example is Dan, a 12-year-old with autism who participated in a study on the effects of exercise on behaviour in children with autism (Bundy, Watson, & Fisher, 2014). Dan's parents reported that he exhibited fewer problem behaviors and demonstrated improved social interaction and communication after participating in a structured exercise program for 12 weeks. Another example is Emma, a 16-year-old with autism who participated in horseback riding therapy (Bundy et al., 2014). Emma's parents reported that she exhibited fewer tantrums and had improved self-regulation and social interaction skills after participating in the therapy.


In conclusion, exercise can be a valuable tool in the behaviour management toolkit for individuals with autism. It has numerous benefits for physical health, social skills, and cognitive function, and may help reduce problem behaviours. By consulting with a healthcare professional, choosing activities that are enjoyable and age-appropriate, setting achievable goals, using visual supports and prompts, and incorporating sensory-rich experiences, you can successfully incorporate exercise into your behaviour management plan for your loved one with autism. Don't be afraid to experiment and find what works best for your family – every individual with autism is unique and what works for one person may not work for another. But with a little creativity and patience, you may be surprised at the positive impact that exercise can have on your loved one's behaviour and overall well-being.

If you would like a zero obligation phone call with one of our Senior Exercise Physiologists to find about how we can help you use exercise as a behaviour management tool to manage autism. Simply, click the button below and fill out our form.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can exercise really help with behaviour management for individuals with autism?

A: Yes, research has shown that exercise has a number of benefits for individuals with autism, including improving physical health, promoting social skills and communication, increasing attention and concentration, and reducing problem behaviours. While it may not work for everyone, it is a promising tool to consider as part of a behaviour management plan.

Q: What are some good activities for individuals with autism to participate in?

A: Some options for physical activities that may be suitable for individuals with autism include swimming, running, walking, biking, team sports, dancing, yoga, and tai chi. It is important to choose activities that are enjoyable and motivating for the individual, and to consider their age and physical abilities.

Q: How often should individuals with autism participate in exercise?

A: It is generally recommended that individuals with autism engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. This can be broken up into shorter periods of time, such as 10-15 minutes at a time. It is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional like a Clinical Exercise Physiologist to determine the best exercise plan for your loved one.

Q: What if my loved one with autism resists participating in exercise?

A: It is not uncommon for individuals with autism to resist participating in activities, including exercise. It may be helpful to try different activities and find what works best for your loved one, and to use visual supports and prompts to help encourage participation. It can also be useful to set achievable goals and celebrate progress, and to incorporate sensory-rich experiences to make the activity more engaging.


  • Cotman, C. W., Berchtold, N. C., & Christie, L. A. (2007). Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in Neurosciences, 30(9), 464-472.

  • Gadow, K. D., & Sprafkin, J. (2002). A controlled trial of daily physical activity for children with pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30(4), 365-381.

  • Santos, D. S., Silva, P. R., & Costa, J. F. (2014). Physical activity and leisure education for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35(9), 2014-2022.

  • Bundy, A.C., Lane, S., & Murray, E. (2015). Physical activity for children with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 9, 58-68.

  • Bundy, A.C., Watson, N.R., & Fisher, T. (2014). The effects of a structured exercise program on problem behaviors and social interaction in a child with autism spectrum disorder. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 31(1), 3-17.

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