Children with autism much less likely to exercise than peers, study reveals

Young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) should be kept active to maintain their mental wellbeing, a major study has revealed.

The research, published by Oregon State University, found that neurodivergent children are less likely to exercise and may suffer mentally and physically as a result.

The paper looked at 88 children with autism and 88 children without autism over a nine-year period, who were interviewed at age nine, 13 and 17 or 18.

While no “statistical difference” was found in how long each group spent in front of a television – either playing games or watching TV or movies – a “marked disparity” was found in the amount of physical activity each undertook from the age of 13.

According to the paper, 13-year-olds with autism reported just one to two days of moderate to vigorous physical activity in the previous two weeks, compared to nine or more days among teens without the condition.

Alarmingly, most 17 to 18-year-olds with autism reported “zero days” of physical activity in the last two weeks, compared to six to eight among peers without autism.

Physical activity was defined as at least 20 minutes of hard exercise, “vigorous enough to prompt heavy breathing and an increased heart rate”.

Commenting on the study, lead author Megan MacDonald said: “Physical activity is such an important part of our life. The benefits of physical activity are so pervasive and holistic: physical effect benefits, how our bodies feel, how we’re physically developing.

“But I’m always fascinated with the mental health benefits — social-emotional health, social-communicative health and our ability to engage with other people.”

She added: “We don’t always know when and how to intervene for kids with autism. This paper doesn’t necessarily tell us that, but it gives us some insight on when this disparity widens and the age range where we start to see these deficits.”

According to the latest statistics, autism affects around one in every 100 people, meaning there are around 700,000 individuals on the autism spectrum in the UK.

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