Autistic adults engage in lower levels of physical activity (PA) than their non-autistic peers, and over sixty percent do not meet national guidelines for PA. Additionally, autistic adults face myriad barriers to PA participation that can make accessing physical activities challenging. As many of the cooccurring conditions that are associated with autism in adults can be moderated by PA, it’s vital that opportunities are accessible and meaningful for autistic individuals. Yet, research on PA participation in autistic adults is limited, with most studies focusing on the perspective of parents and other caregivers.
To support the inclusion of autistic adults in PA, the current study sought to explore first-hand recommendations for PA participation from autistic adults' perspective. In doing so, this study has sought to amplify the accounts of autistic adults so that practitioners have practical solutions to better include autistic individuals into PA experiences and make these opportunities more accessible.
A qualitative descriptive design with a constructivist lens was used to examine autistic participants' recommendations for engaging in PA. Participants were recruited through online groups, university autism networks and a snowball sampling to leverage personal connections of autistic participants. Participants (n=23) ranged in age from from 18 to 75 years (m=40.45, SD = 17.79); 12 participants identified as male and 11 identified as female. Twenty participants had a formal diagnosis of autism and three were self-diagnosed. The AQ-10 was used as a confirmatory measure of likelihood of an autistic diagnosis and all participants scores confirmed likelihood. Interview questions were developed to elicit participant perspectives of their PA experiences across their lifespan. Within a larger grounded theory study, the authors embedded questions that allowed participants to share recommendations on how to improve PA experiences for individuals "like themselves.” The presented data form those recommendations.
Two themes were developed during the data analysis process: 1) It’s helpful to have someone there to support; and 2) It’s that sensory thing, it always is. Theme 1 encapsulates the importance of having vocal advocates willing to encourage and support the autistic persons in both individual and group activities. Theme 2 highlights the critical role that sensory factors play in the success of PA experiences for autistic adults across the lifespan, and how unique sensory needs may be met.
Consistent with prior research, autistic adults in the present study faced a multitude of barriers to accessing PA. Yet, uniquely within this study, the authors asked adults to give recommendations for how they believe those barriers should be addressed. Though simple, the presented recommendations would show a radical balancing of the power dynamic between practitioners and autistic clients. Educators, service providers, and families should take these recommendations not only as direction from those who understand autistic adults best, but as a way to explore with those you work with and love how to provide PA programming and access best.