Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
One of the most effective treatments for autistic people is exercise. Studies show that vigorous or strenuous exercise is associated with decreases in stereotypic (self-stimulatory) behaviors, hyperactivity, aggression, self-injury, and destructiveness. Vigorous exercise means a 20-minute or longer aerobic workout, 3 to 4 days a week; mild exercise has little effect on behavior. Many autistic children gain weight if they have an inactive life-style, and weight gain brings another set of problems.
In general, exercise is important for both physical and mental health. A number of studies have shown that vigorous exercise is one of the best treatments for depression. Exercise can reduce stress and anxiety as well as improve sleep, reaction time, and memory.
Since stereotypic behaviors interfere with teaching, an exercise program might improve the student's attention in the classroom. Parents and teachers should consider including a rigorous exercise program in the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP). (One should not assume that the student gets adequate exercise during recess.)
Since exercise is inexpensive, safe, and healthful, it makes sense to try an exercise program to reduce behavior problems rather than to use more expensive and possibly harmful treatments, such as drugs.
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