ExpertBeacon Logo

Making exercise part of life for children on the autism spectrum

Making exercise part of life for children on the autism spectrum

Incorporating daily exercise into one’s life can positively change your life. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), exercise has the ability to challenge the mind, body and sensory system. To achieve success and help kids with ASD engage in exercise, it is important to establish structure, adapt to their needs and move with them.


Do establish structure

Structure is a vital component to success for children with ASD and should be generalized across multiple settings. Research shows that establishing structured routines for individuals with ASD can help minimize maladaptive behaviors and allows them to transition more effectively. In an exercise environment, begin teaching children with the use of a “first-then” board, progressing to a red/green visual schedule and then advancing to the creation of exercise stations. 

Do use visual supports

Many children on the autism spectrum can’t understand verbal instruction. And if you add other sensory components, such as bright lights, echoing sounds and a hot room, children might have difficulty focusing. Instead of telling them, show them. Try using a visual (actual picture) of an exercise you would like them to perform. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Do remember the importance of teamwork

Because kids on the spectrum are extremely unique, a cookie-cutter approach does not work. It is critical to talk to everyone involved in the child’s life to create a successful exercise program, tailored to each child. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, use strategies in structure, visual supports and communication, which have been successful in the past. Work as a team to meet the needs of each child.

Do model all exercises

Many professionals and parents understand the importance of exercise for a child’s body and mind. But not all can perform--or have an interest in doing--the exercises themselves. If you cannot model the exercise for you child, they can’t be expected to do them. Pick exercises that you feel comfortable doing yourself--and never expect them to do an exercise that you can’t.


Do not reward with candy

Using sugar as a reward for kids with ASD occurs very often in schools. However, this is not a positive way to reward kids for exercise and fitness. Find other rewards or use healthy food options.

Do not overlook the need for flexibility

Be willing to change your approach. While your exercise program may have achieved success with some individuals, not every method is appropriate for all kids. If you are not willing to ask for advice or create change, don’t expect the child you are working with to do so.

Do not set unrealistic expectations

Exercise is hard for anyone. It is a lifestyle change that takes time, especially for kids on the autism spectrum. It is impossible to change one’s entire life in a matter of months. Start your child with only one exercise on the first week, and then add another exercise the following week. Be sure to take your time, and let their bodies and minds adapt.

Do not lose your motivation and enthusiasm

Working with a child on the autism spectrum can be quite challenging. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, a positive attitude is one of the most important components in any exercise program or therapy session. Children are capable of doing great things, but sometimes, you need to adjust your timeline of when these accomplishments will happen. If you need a break, take one. Three to five minutes can make a world of difference for both of you.

Jumping cartoon

Exercise is the gateway to improve self-esteem, fitness and relationships for individuals on the autism spectrum. While physical activity promotes a healthy lifestyle, it is vital to adapt to your child’s needs by creating structure and visual supports.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: © Martinan -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

David S. Geslak, BS, CSCS, ACSM-HFSPresident & Founder

David Geslak began teaching exercise to children/adults with autism in 2004. Back then, exercise wasn’t listed as a form of treatment, which only further inspired Dave to change this paradigm. As he witnessed both physical and emotional breakthr...

View Full Profile