A grounded theory of adoption and maintenance of physical activity among autistic adults

Takeaway: This article sought the first-hand experiences of autistic adults regarding their physical activity experiences. Ultimately, it demonstrate a similar process to non-autistic individuals; however, there were clear factors that uniquely impacted autistic adults. A model is presented in the attached manuscript.
Cite as: Colombo-Dougovito, A. M., Blagrave, A. J., & Healy, S. (2020). A grounded theory of adoption and maintenance of physical activity among autistic adults. Autism. Advanced Online Publication. DOI: 10.1177%2F1362361320932444



Although a growing body of literature has explored the physical activity experiences from the perspective of children on the autism spectrum, the perspective of autistic adults remains largely unheard. Due to this absence of perspective, there exists limited knowledge of the appropriateness and generalizability of current models and theories of physical activity for this population.


A constructivist grounded theory study was conducted to explore the experiences of adoption and maintenance of physical activity from the direct perspective of autistic adults. Autistic adults (n = 23) from the United States and the United Kingdom were recruited.


A total of 29 codes emerged from the coding process. These codes were formed into four broad categories: (1) individual attributes; (2) environmental factors; (3) social relationships; and (4) social experiences. The interconnectedness of these four categories was explored.


The findings and presented model highlight the importance of building successful experiences for young children on the autism spectrum, so that they are more likely to continue physical activity into their adult life. Furthermore, findings emphasize the importance of creating noncompetitive, sensory-friendly physical activity experiences for autistic adults that offer flexibility in social engagement.

Lay abstract

Little is known about how autistic adults experience physical activity. To begin to change this, we interviewed 23 autistic adults from the United State and the United Kingdom about their past and current experiences of physical activity participation. The interviewees told us about how their physical activity experiences were highly influenced by their individual strengths, the setting in which the activity took place, the presence of people to support their physical activities, and the sensory experiences they had while in physical activity. Through these interviews, we were able to create a model that represented the physical activity experiences discussed. Based on the model that emerged from this study, we recommend physical activity opportunities are made available that are noncompetitive, sensory-friendly, and that allow for participants to socialize as they prefer.


Self Archived Manuscript

Colombo-Dougovito_2020_A grounded theory of adoption and maintenance of physical activity among autistic adults.pdf650.7KB

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