Autism-friendly strategies for encouraging physical activity

Several issues make physical activity less appealing for many people with autism. These include poor social and motor skills, a preference for screen-based activities, and a lack of exercise partners and autism-friendly opportunities for physical activity in our communities.

Here are some practical tips for encouraging regular physical activity:

1. Start small

We’ve found that shorter periods of physical activity, spaced throughout the day, tend to be easier to maintain. Remember: The goal is to make physical activity a regular and enjoyable part of daily life. So, be patient and think long term.

Here are some ways to add physical activity into a daily routine:

  • Walking to school (or work) – or at least some of the way.
  • Walking the dog (if you have one).
  • Turn TV advertisements into exercise breaks. I recommend a few minutes of a rigorous activity such as jumping jacks. Join your child in the fun.
  • Make a family trip to the playground a regular, after-dinner activity. If you can walk there, even better.

2. Build motor skills

Keep in mind that your child will need to build some fundamental motor skills to successfully participate in physical activities and sports. You can make this skill-building enjoyable by playing games that encourage your child to:

  • Move in different ways (e.g. run, jump, hop, and skip)
  • Play with different types of equipment such as balls, bats and racquets (e.g. throw, catch, kick and strike).

Practicing these skills at home can foster your child’s success in physical education class, while increasing the likelihood that he or she will enjoy other socially engaging physical activities such as playground games and recreational sports.

3. Sample different types of physical activity

Ideally, include one or more activities that encourage:

  • Fitness. An activity that involves moderate to vigorous activity – activity that gets a person breathing heavily.
  • Social interaction. An activity that involves one or more other people, such as tennis or catch.
  • Independence. An activity that can be done alone, such as a home fitness or yoga routine – perhaps with the help of a video.

4. Be a role model and enlist friends and family

As a parent, you are the most important role model for your child. I encourage you to model an active lifestyle for your child. Show them the enjoyment and value you gain from being active.

Next, consider the many people who interact with your child on a daily or weekly basis and how might you enlist them to encourage your child’s physical activity.

Teachers, especially physical education teachers, can be a great influence. Share your aspirations and strategies for your child. If your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), be sure to include physical education goals in your IEP discussions. If possible, invite the PE teacher to attend the IEP meeting.

5. Tips for making physical activities autism friendly

Here are three practical strategies commonly used in activity programs designed for youth who have autism:

  • Someone who understands. Ideally, we want people with autism – especially children and teens – to have access to physical activity programs led by facilitators who understand how to communicate and motivate participants in autism-friendly ways.
  • Routine. Most of us need routine, and this appears to be especially true for many people on the spectrum. Create a visual schedule to help reinforce the routine. 
  • Get visual. Many people with autism are visual learners. Visual supports such as task cards, physical demonstrations and video modelling often prove very helpful.


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