The Benefits of Exercise and Outdoor Experiences for Those with ASD

BY Kristina Tober, JULY 2018

When Ascendigo was founded in 2004 (then aptly named Extreme Sports Camp), it was with the belief that kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) spend so much time in school and therapy and rarely have the time or opportunities to participate in sports. All the benefits “typical” kids get from sports – self-esteem, exercise, confidence, a sense of belonging and purpose, recreation – weren’t readily available to kids with autism.

Thanks to Ascendigo’s Adventures program, which now includes summer camp, winter skiing, and snowboarding, and the Saturday Adventures Club, children, teens and adults with autism are getting rewarding, challenging outdoor experiences with all the supports they need to succeed and have fun. At the same time, they are learning how to better integrate into community life recreationally and socially.

Turns out Ascendigo is on to something!

A growing number of studies confirm that exercise and sports provide a wealth of benefits to those on the autism spectrum, including a recent meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Sean Healy, assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition at the University of Delaware, and as reported by Autism Speaks.

The meta-analysis included 29 studies looking at the benefits of exercise among more than 1,000 youth with ASD. The results showed moderate to large benefits in key areas:

• Physical exercise provides rich opportunities to build social skills with peers through group play and fosters verbal and non-verbal communication. The studies also looked at the benefits youth with autism get from horseback riding and demonstrated that the engagement between individuals with ASD and animals is rewarding and substantive.

• Many in the ASD population have struggled with lower fitness skills including balance, coordination, and visual-motor control. Physical activity helps build fundamental motor skills like throwing, running, catching, etc.

Implications, a newsletter by InformeDesign, which facilitates designers’ use of research-based information as a decision-making tool in the design process, published an article about Outdoor Environments for Children with Autism and Special Needs (link to pdf). The piece referred to Richard Louv’s ground-breaking book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficient Disorder. Louv makes a case for the value of outdoor play and creating connections with nature during childhood. “Positive outdoor experiences can foster happier, healthier, smarter, and more well-adjusted children and can create future stewards of the earth. Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have linked contact with nature to restored attention, recovery from mental fatigue, and enhanced mental focus.”

We all feel and perform better mentally after a good workout or spending time in the great outdoors — shouldn’t it be obvious that the same would apply to individuals with ASD? What remains a challenge for many on the spectrum, however, is gaining access to physical activity programs that are personalized and supportive, and build lifelong physical activity. Ascendigo has seen the impact sports can have on participants and continues to create meaningful opportunities for a population too often left behind. And while development is certainly the mission, we can’t help but celebrate how much fun the campers and staff have in the process.

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