Activity levels among children with autism spectrum disorder linked to parental behaviour: U of T study

Father takes his two children cycling through a forest trail
Researchers at U of T's Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education found that roughly three quarters of parents struggle to provide physical activity support for children with autism spectrum disorder (photo by JaySi/iStockImages via Getty Images)

Children and youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) engage in less physical activity than their peers, a University of Toronto study has found.

The research, published recently in Autism, examined the relationship between parents’ support for physical activity and physical activity levels of children and youth with autism spectrum disorder. 

“We know that parent support for physical activity is critical for engaging children and youth with disabilities in physical activity, although it may be especially important for children and youth with ASD due to the barriers they face beyond those experienced by their peers without disabilities,” says Denver Brown, a former post-doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education and lead author of the study.

He explains that, at the individual level, children and youth with ASD may engage in less physical activity due to social, behavioural or motor impairments. But there are also environmental factors, he says, such as the limited availability of inclusive physical activity programming and staff who are trained to work with children and youth with ASD in those settings. 

“Understanding factors that promote physical activity among children and youth with ASD is critical for shaping lifelong physical activity patterns that are known to be established during these formative life stages,” Brown says.

The study, done in collaboration with researchers from the University of British Columbia, Queens University and York University, focused on a specific sub-sample of participants from a larger five-year National Physical Activity Measurement (NPAM) study that is led by KPE’s Associate Professor Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos and funded by Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities. NPAM looks into the movement behaviours such as physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep among Canadian school-aged children and youth with disabilities. 

More than 200 parents of children and youth with ASD completed a questionnaire assessing, among other things, behaviours and intentions to support their child’s physical activity, including how often they looked for information or opportunities to become active with their child or how often they made a plan to ensure their child engaged in physical activity. 

The study found that, while many parents of children and youth with ASD have strong intentions to provide support for their child’s physical activity, roughly 75 per cent struggle to translate these intentions into action. On average, they are able to provide physical activity support for their children only once per week.

“One potential explanation for this is that parents of children and youth with ASD face barriers that are often out of their control,” says Arbour-Nicitopoulos. “For example, the need to manage their child’s condition may limit additional time for parents to support their child’s regular physical activity participation and to seek out further knowledge of specialized physical activity programming. Some may ultimately view providing physical activity support as a lower priority compared to the many competing demands they face in caring for their child.”

An additional challenge is the fact that the responsibility of supporting children and youth with ASD still largely falls on parents. But the study authors say clinicians have a unique opportunity to address this issue. As primary care providers, they could discuss the importance of physical activity with parents during clinical visits and refer families to a kinesiologist, who could work with parents to improve their use of behavioural regulation strategies – such as planning and goal setting – to provide physical activity support, the authors suggest. Such interventions could be delivered over the phone or via webinars and apps as a potentially cost-effective strategy to provide a structured framework to change parent physical activity support behaviour. 

“Our study has shown that, while parents of children and youth with ASD have the best intentions to support their physical activity, this is often not enough,” Arbour-Nicitopoulos says. “By helping parents as well as their children develop the necessary skills to support their child’s physical activity, we would be helping families get a sense of control to act upon their intentions.”

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