Parent Perspectives on Physical Activity and the Role of Physical Therapy in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder


American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) - Section on Pediatrics


St Louis

Publication Date / Copyright Date

October 2014


Abstract submitted for poster presentation: Purpose: Childhood obesity and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are at national epidemic levels and the numbers continue to rise. While each health issue alone is the focus of national attention, there is evidence of an even higher incidence of obesity in children with ASD. Broward County, Florida has higher than national averages of both autism and obesity, making these primary public health and economic issues for the local community. The purpose of this study was to examine parent perspectives on obesity risk and physical activity in children with ASD, and parent awareness of the role of physical therapy in preventing overweight and obesity. Description of Subjects: Sixty-six parents of children with ASD, ages 3 through18 years, who reside in Broward County, Florida participated in the study. Methods: A mixed-methods sequential explanatory design was utilized. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected via Web-based survey and parent interviews. Closed-ended survey data were categorized and analyzed to yield response percentages. Open-ended responses and interview data were analyzed using thematic analysis. Results: Nearly half of the parents surveyed were unaware that obesity rates are higher in children with ASD. Twenty-five percent of participating parents reported physical activity rates for their child of less than one hour per day, while forty-two percent were not satisfied with their child’s level of physical activity. Nearly thirty percent observed their children having shortness of breath after physical activity. Parents who participated in the study described barriers that prevented their children with ASD from engaging in physical activity in social contexts at school or in the community. Barriers included limited opportunities, lack of training among staff, bullying, and high cost. Although fifty percent of the children received physical therapy, parents had difficulty explaining the role of physical therapy in treating children with ASD beyond basic strengthening and sensory integration therapy. Conclusions: Results indicate that a significant percentage of participating parents were unaware of increased obesity risk in children with ASD, were dissatisfied with their child's level of physical activity, and did not understand the role of physical therapy in preventing overweight and obesity in children with ASD. Clinical Relevance: Participants represent a small subset of parents in one county in Florida. The results cannot be generalized. Nevertheless, the results indicate the existence of parent concerns and lack of awareness regarding physical activity, obesity, and the role of physical activity in this local population. Findings support the need for parent education on the role of physical therapy in promoting wellness, and preventing obesity in children with ASD. Parent perception of barriers to participation in school and community physical activity programs supports the importance of staff education and training for inclusion, and to prevent bullying of children with ASD. Additional, and larger scale research in this area is needed.


Physical Therapy

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