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The Impact of Movement for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

The Impact of Movement for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
By: Jennifer Rossman & Dr. Marla J. Lohmann

            Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a growing diagnosis that refers to a group of neurological conditions (Srinisavan & Baht, 2013).  These conditions can impact language, social skills, motor skills, and can lead to behavioral issues, such as inability to focus and enhanced aggression (Srinisavan & Baht, 2013). These symptoms often prevent students from fully participating in academic learning (Case-Smith & Arbesman, 2008).  In an attempt to provide free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with autism, researchers and educators strive to understand the unique and diverse needs of these students.  A growing sum of research is being conducted on the impact of movement breaks within the classroom and the positive effect they have on both general education students, as well as students with autism and other disabilities.  Movement has proven to be effective for addressing behaviors that are incompatible with learning, including aggression, hyper activity, and deficits in attention.
            Literature surrounding the positive impacts of physical activity on student performance holds the common theme that physical activity is related to improvement in academic performance and behavior for students.  Such literature deals primarily with general education classrooms in upper elementary grades, but the implications are that physical activity improves learning and behaviors for all students.
Research suggests that the classroom is an optimal environment to provide students with structured movement breaks (Dinkel, Lee & Schaffer, 2016).  Structured movement breaks have been proven to increase student’s time on task and lead to improved scores in math, reading, and spelling (Dinkel, Lee & Schaffer, 2016).  A study conducted on students measured the impact that physical activity had on standardized test scores and found that students who had initially scored the lowest on standardized tests saw favorable effects from the intervention (Resaland et al., 2016).  Other studies have found a strong correlation between increased physical activity and improved academic performance (Trost, 2007) and report findings of reduced stress in students who had access to regular classroom movement, as well as reduced disruptive behaviors within physically active classrooms (Braniff, 2011).
For students with ASD, many of the interventions outlined in literature suggest various forms of structured movement and play for addressing symptoms (Srinivasan & Baht, 2013; Case-Smith & Arbesman, 2008).  Additional literature concludes that regular physical activity breaks improve on-task behavior during times of instruction (Mahar, Murphy, Rowe, Golden, Shields & Raedeke; 2006).  This overlap in evidence suggests that students benefit from movement and activity, regardless of developmental ability or classroom type.  Of the literature available on interventions for ASD specifically, activity having structure seems the most central theme.
             While literature shows that movement and activity can offer a variety of behavioral improvements and increase academic achievement in both neuro-typical and ASD students, the types of movements that are appropriate for learning vs counterproductive to learning must be defined. An article reporting on evidence-based physical activity programs finds that the central theme of structure and an emphasis on motor skills come together to provide the most effective and comprehensive physical activity program for students with autism (Schultheis, Boswell & Decker, 2000).  This finding aligns thematically with the idea that structured activity improves overall behavior, learning and motor skills for students with ASD.
            Literature reports that regular physical movement within the classroom improves both student academic and behavioral outcomes. When paired with a structured environment, physical activity within the classroom can positively impact behavior and gross motor skills for students with ASD. The combined literature leads to the inference that improved behavior and motor skills will lead to increased academic performance to students with ASD, and that the benefits of activity on academic performance are universal to each classroom when used with structure and fidelity.  With this in mind, it is imperative that teachers incorporate more movement into both the General and Special Education classroom environments.  It is the authors’ recommendation that teachers plan to incorporate “brain breaks” into classroom instruction during every lesson and when they notice that students are having a hard time focusing.  The “brain breaks” can be related to the lesson, such as jumping while reciting math facts or marching while singing a History song, or they can be fun games that provide both a break from sitting still and a break from the academic instruction.  In addition, we recommend that teachers use movement as a part of their transition routine between activities and lessons throughout the day.
References and Additional Resources
Braniff, C. (2011). The effects of movement in the classroom: exploration of movement and collaboration with fourth grade students. Networks: An Online Journal for Teacher Research, 13, 1-6.
Brusseau, T.A., & Hannon, J.C. (2015). Impacting children’s health and academic  performance through comprehensive school physical activity programming.  International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 7(3), 441- 450.
Case-Smith, J., & Arbesman, M. (2008). Evidence-based review of interventions for autism used in or of relevance to occupational therapy. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62, 416–429.
Dinkel, D.M., Lee, J.M., & Schaffer, C. (2016). Examining the knowledge and capacity of         elementary teachers to implement classroom physical activity breaks. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, (9)1, 182-196.
Lang, R., Koegel, L.K., Ashbaugh, K., Regester, A., Ence, W., & Smith, W. (2010). Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4, 565-576. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2010.01.006
Mahar, M.T., Murphy, S.K., Rowe, D.A., Golden, J., Shields, A.T.,& Raedeke, T.D. (2006).       Effects of a classroom-based program on physical-activity and on-task behavior.  Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2086-2096. DOI: 10.1249/01.mss.0000235359.16685.a3
Resaland G.K., Aadland, E., Moe, V.F., Aadland, K.N., Skrede, T., Stavnsbo, M., Suominen, L…Andressen, S. (2016). Effects of physical activity on schoolchildren's academic performance: The Active Smarter Kids (ASK) cluster-randomized controlled trial.  Preventive Medicine, 91, 322-328.
Schultheis, S.F., Boswell, B.B., & Decker, J. (2000). Successful physical activity programming for students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 15, 159-162. doi=
Srinivasan, S. & Bhat, A. (2013). A review of “music and movement” therapies for children with autism: embodied interventions for multisystem development. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 7, 22. doi:10.3389/fnint.2013.00022
Trost, S.G. (2007). Active education: Physical education, physical activity and academic performance Active Living Research. Retrieved from