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Parents Rate Exercise as the No. 1 Treatment for Autism

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One in 54 children in the U.S. lives with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While no cure exists, research shows that physical activity can positively impact the quality of life for those living with the world’s fastest growing developmental disability. Parents even rate exercise as the No. 1 treatment for autism.

“Exercise goes beyond health-related benefits and increased levels of fitness for those with autism,” said David Geslak, an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) certified exercise physiologist and president of exercise connection in a press release. “Research shows that exercise can increase focus, improve academic performance, reduce stereotypical behaviors and build confidence.”

One study, published in ACSM’s flagship journal “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise,” shows that just 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise reduced verbal repetition of phrases or words and hand-flapping — two common behaviors associated with autism. A recent study from Oregon State University found that to help kids with autism maintain physical activity, targeted exercise programs should take place between ages nine and 13, as that’s when kids show the biggest decline in active time.

According to a national survey of autism treatment effectiveness — which rated more than 300 medications, nutritional supplements, diets and therapies — more than 700 autism families rated exercise as the number one treatment overall.

In honor of Autism Acceptance Month, Geslak and ACSM teamed up to share three simple, evidence-based physical activity strategies for those with autism:

  1. Use visuals. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true for individuals with autism because communication can be one of the biggest challenges. Using visual supports like pictures can establish structure and routine, helping those with autism make the exercise connection.
  2. Make exercise part of their routine. Those on the autism spectrum benefit from following a structured schedule. An exercise program should be thoughtfully integrated into the daily or weekly routine. Even one exercise session per week can be beneficial.
  3. Remember, persistence over perfection. Don’t worry if the exercise doesn’t resemble what you’ve seen on TV or how you demonstrated it. You simply need to get your child or students moving. Engage them in a few exercises and gradually increase the amount of time or repetitions.

“Teaching exercise to those with autism has a profound impact on the individual, their parents and the therapists or educators working with them,” said Geslak in a press release. “ACSM and I are committed to training more professionals to successfully teach exercise to this deserving population so they can transform lives in their communities.”

Geslak’s firsthand experience teaching exercise at a school for children with autism sparked a passion and led to the development of custom fitness program that has since been incorporate in 12 universities’ curriculum. His passion, along with ACSM’s expertise on exercise guidelines, also led to the launch of the fitness industry’s first educational certificate in 2018. To date, more than 500 professionals have participated in the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate program. A recent study indicates the program is making a difference and equipping professionals with needed skills and knowledge. 

“Analysis of participants’ engagement in the online portion of the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate program indicates increased confidence in using evidence-based practices,” said Scott McNamara, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “This shows the program is filling a knowledge gap for practitioners, which ultimately translates to increased access to quality physical activity programming for those living with autism.”

Visit acsm.org/learn-develop-professionally/ceonline2 to learn more about the course and autismexercisespecialist.com to learn more about the certificate. 

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David S. Geslak

David S. Geslak, BS, ACSM EP-C, CSCS, the founder of Exercise Connection, has pioneered exercise tools and programs to engage and improve the lives of those with autism. He created the award-winning, research-supported app, Exercise Buddy®, and in partnership with American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), he developed the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate®. This was ACSM’s No. 2 most popular CEC Course of 2019 and 2020. His commitment and methodology to bringing exercise to those with autism has been enthusiastically embraced around the world by professionals, higher education and the autism community.

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