Exercise and Repetitive Behaviours

Have you ever seen someone with autism rocking back and forward, flapping their hand, or repeatedly touching objects? These behaviours are often harmless and can be a person’s way of seeking or controlling sensory stimulation. But sometimes this can really interrupt the day to day tasks that a person needs to do. E.g. Josh rocks back and forth in his sheltered workshop continually which affects his focus on work. 


Lots of different ways are used to help people to manage these repetitive behaviours. One of the ways is exercise! Exercise has already been shown to help people to sleep better, relieve stress, and improve concentration. But now research is showing that exercise could even help with these repetitive behaviours!

The research people looked at…

The level of repetitive behaviours before and after activities like jogging, horseback riding and martial arts. Researchers found a significant decrease of these behaviours after exercise. Some of these effects were seen straight after the exercise, and some were only seen after a number of weeks doing the program.

How much, how long, how far?

So far in the studies:

How often: 1-5x/week
How long? 15-90 minutes
Program length? 5 weeks - 6 months

You can see that the exercise amount really varies!

So what can you do? 

Because every person with autism is unique and different, it’s difficult to find one prescription that will work for everyone. Exercise needs to be tailored to the person’s physical and intellectual ability, fitness, interests and lifestyle. What the research does indicate is that exercise is likely to help reduce these repetitive behaviors.

Exercise needs to be tailored to the person’s physical and intellectual ability, fitness, interests and lifestyle.

If the person with autism is not currently active

Start small! Start with walking 10 minutes a few times each week. From there, you can gradually increase it to most days of the week and increase the time you spend walking. From there, you can progress to jogging. 

Remember, for a person with autism, changing routines can be quite challenging, so it’s helpful to communicate the changes to them and make the changes gradually. 

If you don’t like walking, you could join Riding for the Disabled (RDA) for the benefits of horse riding or find a martial arts class near you.

If the person with autism is already active

Great! The next step could be to look at any improvements in repetitive behaviour after the exercise?  Do you notice more behaviours when they haven’t exercised in a while? Monitoring this can really help you to see what types or lengths of exercise work!

If you’re a monitoring kind of person, you can look at these questions:

  • how long was the exercise?

  • how hard was the exercise?

  • what type of exercise was it?

  • what kind of behaviour effect did it have?

  • how long did these behaviour effects last for? 

By answering these questions, you’ll be able to start designing your own autism-specific exercise program!

Happy exercising!

Bremer, E., Crozier, M. and Lloyd, M. (2016). A systematic review of the behavioural outcomes following exercise interventions for children and youth with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 20(8), pp.899-915.

Autism Spectrum Australia (2017) Sensory Processing Factsheet