With winter upon us, the idea of exercise is one that is very much needed but often non-preferred. In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis the words “preferred activity and “non-preferred activity” are widely used. It can be fairly common that exercise, or related activities, can fall under the umbrella of being “non-preferred” activities for individuals with autism. Preferred activities usually include technology based activities, such as playing video games, earning time on an iPad, watching TV, etc. By nature, those are mostly sedentary activities (exceptions being Wii, doing yoga exercises, etc.). Research indicates that an individual with autism will engage in preferred activities for as long as they please, as long as they are not satiated. However, when it comes to engaging in non-preferred activities, individuals with autism are usually engaged on average for 2-6 minutes before exhibiting a challenging behavior, or asking to be done.

Researchers have investigated possible barriers as to why individuals with autism engage in little physical activity. Their results indicate that those on the spectrum often experience heightened levels of stress and anxiety when it comes to trying something new or non-preferred. It was also reported that they were often times “pre-occupied” with other aspects of their life, which includes the sedentary choices like video games. Reasons such as these has led to an increase in the prevalence of obesity in the autistic population. In addition, opportunities for increased exercise are a very important health issue that needs to be addressed for all children. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a survey in 2014 to assess the prevalence of obesity in a variety of disabilities. Their results are worrisome:
• Autism: 31.8%
• Intellectual disability: 19.8%
• Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): 17.6%
• Typical developing (age-matched peers): 13.1%

Now the bigger question becomes, how can we motivate those on the spectrum to engage in more physical activity to combat the obesity issue and/or to increase physical fitness? There is no clear-cut answer, and various interventions may work for some kids, but not for others. Here are a few suggestions to facilitate more physical activity for your child(ren), regardless of the reason.

First, Then Language. Research suggests using first, then language is effective regarding contriving motivation to engage in a non-preferred activity. Examples: “First, let’s go for a walk, then when we get back you can play with your iPad until dinner.” “First, let’s go for a bike ride, then we can watch a movie.”

Behavior contracts. This is exactly what it sounds like. An actual contract with your child. A behavior contract spells out criteria for reinforcement. An example of a contract: “If I go on at least six walks with Mom/Dad after dinner for at least 20 minutes each walk (over the course of a week), I will get my favorite pizza on Saturday or Sunday. If I do not go on at least six walks, the following week I will need to go on one additional walk and I do not get my pizza.” Visuals can be made to aid this method and are encouraged.

Visual Stimulus. Think wearable technology (FitBit, Apple Watch, etc.). Or even technology in general (TV). It comes down to what your child would find more interesting, or motivating. Research indicates that if someone on the spectrum has a preferred TV show in front of them while walking on a treadmill they will often times continue walking for the duration of the show. Other research indicates putting mobile apps for fitness (FitBit, Apple Fitness, Samsung Fitness, etc.) is motivating in the sense the individual gets real time updates on how many steps they take, distance traveled, calories, heart rate and even miles per hour.

Try Different Activities. Fortunately there are many different ways one can exercise. There are a lot of options out there. Try different activities and try different ways to incorporate the physical activity. Having a child run a lap might not be exciting, but having them race you or a sibling might be more motivating. Be creative when it comes to exercise, it will make it easier to increase motivation.

Of course the method decided on depends on many variables (age, functioning level, etc.). However, the possibilities are endless regarding possible ways to motivate your child to exercise. With winter here, exercise is very important. Lastly, I will say that consistency is key. The more consistent both parties (parent and child), the more progress everyone will see regarding engaging in more exercise. Exercise may even become a preferred activity!

It should be noted that I am not saying all children with autism are overweight, or obese. The prevalence of obesity is alarming in the autistic population and needs to be addressed. These suggestions are helpful for everyone — overweight or not, autism or not.