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Exercise improves quality of life for children with autism

For immediate release

Thursday 2 March 2017

Study shows exercise improves quality of life for children with autism

New research has found that regular exercise improves communication behaviours among children with autism.

The findings are the result of a four-month collaborative study between researchers from Achilles International and the New York Medical College, funded by the Cigna Foundation in America.

The study measured the effect of the Achilles Kids running programme, with 94 students with autism across five schools taking part. It assessed restrictive and repetitive behaviours, social interaction and communication, emotional response and cognitive style. The research found that regular exercise helped improve the students overall quality of life – helping them engage in everyday social situations, reducing their anxiety and in turn improving their peers acceptance and inclusion.

“The results are extremely encouraging as millions of parents, caregivers and medical professionals grapple with how to best support children on the autism spectrum,” says Jo Walker, Chair of Achilles New Zealand.

Wellington mother Elizabeth Abbey can further validates the findings. Her son Ethan, who has Asperger's syndrome, runs with Achilles.

“Exercise has been an integral part of Ethan’s life. We were adamant that his disability wouldn’t impact on his quality of life and from a young age we made sure he was very active, regularly running, swimming and hiking.

“As he got older we noticed that after a run he was calmer, less anxious and more lucid in his conversation. He even said he felt better,” says Elizabeth.

Following the death of Ethan’s father last year Elizabeth knew she needed to keep him running. Alongside other networks Ethan is involved with Achilles seemed tailor made for their needs.

“The fortnightly runs fulfil much of the role his father did – the guides are young, active and like-minded and offer a community and support network that enables Ethan to run longer distances regularly which really help him.”

The support offered by Achilles meant that Ethan was able to take part in this year’s Cigna Round the Bays – an event he has taken part in every year since he first ran it with his father in 1991.

Dane Dougan, Chief Executive Autism New Zealand, says it is interesting to see the positive results of the research. “What works for one person with autism may not necessarily work for another. However, these findings show the benefit of building exercise into a daily routine and how it can positively help people with autism live to their full potential.

“As an evidence based organisation it is great to see this type of research being undertaken. With autism affecting roughly 1 in 70 New Zealanders there is a lot that we can learn from these findings to help create change in a positive way.”

In America the Achilles Kids school-based running curriculum helps adaptive physical education teachers—whose students include children with autism—implement a running-based program in their schools. The students are given the goal of running 26.2 miles—the marathon distance—in a school year.

The school-based study was funded by World of Difference grants given to Achilles in 2014 and 2015 by long-time partner Cigna Foundation. Existing literature on this topic often examined small sample sizes or community-based programs, and so the Achilles and NYMC teams sought to quantifying extensive anecdotal evidence observed by Achilles showing physical, social, emotional and academic improvement in children with autism spectrum disorder who regularly ran with their program as part of their school day.

The study was released late last year at the Academy of Paediatric Physical Therapy’s Section on Paediatrics Annual Conference (SoPAC). A copy of the research is available on request.

For more information about Achilles New Zealand visit http://www.achillesnewzealand.org/ and watch a video showing the Achilles team at Cigna Round the Bays and what it meant for them to be part of the event.

-Ends-


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