A 12-week experimental study involving autistic children and their parents explored the impact of physical training workshops on the children’s fundamental motor skills, such as running, jumping, and ball activities (throwing or kicking). The results indicated that in-person physical activity workshops were the most beneficial. Training parents to assist their children in acquiring these skills also proved effective. The study was published in Autism Research.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a complex condition that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. It is most often diagnosed in early childhood with symptoms that include difficulties in understanding social cues, challenges in expressing emotions and forming relationships, repetitive behaviors, and an intense focus on specific interests.
Studies indicate that autistic children exhibit lower levels of physical activity compared to non-autistic children. Their fundamental motor skills, like those needed to kick or throw a ball in team sports, run or jump effectively, are also worse. Physical activity not only promotes health but also offers autistic children opportunities to develop social and communication skills, boosting self-esteem and cognitive abilities.
Study author Laura A. Prieto and her colleagues observed that previous studies affirm the positive impact of interventions aimed at enhancing physical activity in autistic children, particularly in developing fundamental motor skills. However, these studies often lacked a control group. Consequently, it was unclear whether the improvements were due to the intervention, natural maturation, or concurrent developments. This study aimed to determine if involving parents in the intervention would yield better outcomes, prompting the design of a new experiment.
The study involved 31 families with autistic children from the Midwest United States, recruited via local associations serving autistic students and their families. The participants were randomly divided into three groups: one to undergo a 12-week in-person training program, another for an online version, and a control group living their usual lives. Both training groups received necessary equipment, like balls and cones, for the activities.
The training comprised three-hour workshops every third Saturday, conducted in-person or live-streamed (for the online group). Experts in relevant fields led these workshops, with in-person sessions held at local schools or church facilities, and the online group participating via Zoom from their homes.
During the workshops, parents engaged in discussions with facilitators while the children participated in motor activities led by university students. Parents also learned and practiced fundamental motor skills, strategies related to fitness, and games involving kicking, sliding, and one-handed strikes. They were encouraged to apply this knowledge with their children and to play these games for an hour daily.
The control group continued their usual routines. The children’s fundamental motor skills were assessed before and after the intervention using the Test of Gross Motor Development-3 (TGMD-3).
Results showed that, after the intervention, the in-person workshop group had the best motor skills of all three groups. This was the case for both locomotor skills (running, walking, jumping crawling) and skills with a ball. The group that participated in online sessions also showed improvement, but the extent of the improvement was smaller.
“Although findings from this study would suggest that autistic children can improve their fundamental motor skills when supported by their parents, perhaps the more important finding is that both modalities, the in-person and the online delivery demonstrated a positive improvement in the fundamental motor skills of autistic children. Interventions focusing on the development and acquisition of fundamental motor skills are needed to prevent the declining levels of physical activity in this population,” the study authors concluded.
The study makes a contribution to the scientific understanding of effects of different methods of physical training of autistic children. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the number of children involved in the study was extremely small. Due to this, although the differences between groups were very large (in-person group vs control) or fairly substantial (online group vs control), it remains unknown whether the results could be generalized to all autistic children (the differences were not statistically significant).
The paper, “A randomized parent-mediated physical activity intervention for autistic children”, was authored by Laura A. Prieto, Benazir Meera, Ashlyn Barry, Gayatri Swarup, Jennifer Asmus, Byungmo Ku, Kristi Roth, John T. Foley, and Luis Columna.