A parent-mediated physical activity intervention helps autistic kids acquire fundamental motor skills

Examples of equipment provided by the Fit Families Programs for kids to play at home with their parents.

By Charlene N. Rivera-Bonet, Waisman Science Writer

Note: The lab of Luis Columna uses identity-first language in response to the majority preference of the autistic community. This story reflects that preference.

Autistic children show lower physical activity and fundamental motor skills such as running, jumping, or throwing compared to non-autistic children. Equipping parents with tools and information on how to increase their kid’s physical activity may help facilitate the development of fundamental motor skills in autistic children.

Luis Columna, PhD
Luis Columna, PhD

A recent study published in the journal Autism Research by the laboratory of Waisman Center affiliate Luis Columna, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found an improvement in fundamental motor skills of autistic children whose parents participated in a 12-week physical activity intervention. Through this intervention, parents received training on physical activity, equipment for games and activities at home, and a mobile app that served as a guide.

Other studies have shown that autistic individuals that participate in physical activity show greater strength, aerobic capacity, and general fitness, which improves their physical and mental health. Physical activity can also benefit their social and communication abilities, self-esteem, cognition, and self-stimulatory or self-destructive behaviors. On the other hand, the lack thereof puts them at risk for conditions such as diabetes, and heart diseases, which studies have shown autistic individuals have a higher risk for.

“I think we always say parents are children’s first teachers. They’re responsible for the opportunities and exposures that children will have. And so that makes them a really important agent of change in their health,” says Laura Prieto, PhD, former doctoral student in Columna’s lab, now postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, and first author of the study. The goal of this research was to see the effects that a 12-week, parent-mediated physical activity intervention had on fundamental motor skills of autistic children.

Parents and their children, ages four to eleven, were divided into three groups: in-person training, virtual, and a control group. Parents in the in-person group attended workshops on physical activity, communication, and teaching methods while their kids were playing and practicing games with trained student guides. After the workshop, parents joined their kids and practiced the techniques they had learned. They then debriefed before going home with equipment for more than 200 games or activities provided by the research team. “I felt like a Puerto Rican Santa Claus,” Columna says. Workshops happened every three weeks for 12 weeks for a total of four workshops.

The equipment each family received included toys like the stomp rocket – which requires kids to stomp or jump on a pad to launch a rocket – balls, cones, pool noodles, disks, hula hoops, bean bags, and many others. These allowed kids to practice skills such as running, jumping, balance, and catching.

The virtual group attended the workshop online and received the equipment, but did not have practice and debrief sessions.

Laura Prieto, PhD
Laura Prieto, PhD

After each session, both the in-person and virtual groups were encouraged to put what they learned into practice every day for 60 minutes – the national recommended amount of physical activity for children. The research team offered technical assistance to parents between sessions. The control group did not attend any workshop and didn’t receive the equipment until after the end of the study.

Prieto recalls one of the moms who attended the workshop with her autistic son. “She tried to teach him different batting skills. And he hit the baseball for the first time using the bat. And that was amazing. You could see he was so happy, but mom was happier. It was something so simple. And just imagine if that could keep happening,” Prieto says.

An important component of this intervention was the Fit Families app. The app, created by Columna, Benazir Meera, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the kinesiology department, and Kristi Roth, PhD, professor in the School of Education at UW-Stevens Point, contained a list of activities and equipment with detailed instructions on each of them. Each activity had videos with demonstrations, modifications to make them easier or harder, and tips on how to communicate with the child during the activity.

The results of the study showed a medium to large effect size post intervention in the fundamental motor skills of children in the in-person and virtual groups after the 12-week intervention. The control group only had a small change. That is, the intervention was effective in increasing the fundamental motor skills when these were led by their parents. “The Fit Families Program demonstrates preliminary effectiveness. It shows promising results on impacting the fundamental motor skills like running, skipping, and jumping for autistic children,” Prieto says.

The Fit Families App
A screen shot of the Fit Families app

Columna describes training in physical activities for parents of autistic children as the missing piece. “We do programs to teach the parents how to work with the kids on communication, nutrition, and care, but not on physical activity,” he says. “We are setting the stage for future research and an intervention for this population.”

The Fit Families app has gone through many iterations since its conception. The transformation to what it is now is based on feedback from parents. “I learned how to listen to them. Everything I do is by listening to them, nothing else,” Columna says. Currently, the Fit Families app is only available for research use, but Columna and his collaborators are working to make it available for the public in the near future.

Another benefit of the app is that it can be applicable to other intellectual and developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome. In the future, Columna wants to expand this program to Latino communities by translating the app and workshops into Spanish, and to reach other ages beyond childhood. “I want to create programs from four to 99 years old,” Columna says. “That’s my goal.”

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