As a coach I have worked with autistic athletes before, especially in the high-functioning realm, such as those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Just like any other athletes, autistic individuals have strengths and weaknesses. A coach needs to understand these qualities in order to develop the athlete to his or her greatest potential.
Often, the unique aspects of working with an autistic person are related to cognitive or social factors. For example, autistic clients tend to have a unique way of learning or social anxiety. Working with a team often has a beneficial effect on these qualities in autistic clients. However, the physical effects of autism aren’t as well understood.
Out of the presented traits common to autism, a few are physical in nature. A difference in gait, fine and gross motor skills, and repetitive physical gestures (such as with the hands) are possible physical symptoms. Limited research and anecdotal reports have pointed to a possible weakness in musculature as well. In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers sought to learn more about how autism affects strength.
Autism’s effects on strength may be related the other physical symptoms observed in autistic clients. For example, motor skill deficits could be the result of an inability to physically perform a movement. This obstacle could in turn lead to the development of altered skill patterns, even for simple activities like walking.
To test strength, the researchers used a handgrip dynamometer, a device that specifically measures grip strength. They assessed one group of autistic children and a second group with no austistic participants. The researchers used grip strength as an indicator of total strength. Most of us might already think of grip as a marker of general strength, and it has been demonstrated to correlate in research as well.
The researchers were careful to match the autistic participants for age, sex, and race with their neurotypical counterparts. In this context, the term neurotypical refers to someone without autism. The only difference between the two groups was intended to be whether or not they had autism.
The research uncovered that there was a significant difference in grip strength between the groups. The autistic participants averaged 39.3 kPa (kilopascals, the measure the dynamometer used), where the control group averaged 65.1 kPa. That is indeed a substantial difference. If it’s true that lower grip strength suggests a total body weakness for the autistic individuals, the results may also suggest a plan of action is needed to develop muscular strength. If strength is improved, some of the symptoms associated with autism may also be reduced.
One facet the researchers did not consider is that autistic people tend to shy away from social situations. This lack of socialization may have a major role in the difference in strength levels. The children in the study were from a fairly urbanized community, and the children with autism may not engage in some of the physical social activities that gave the other children greater strength. The control group was also slightly older on average.
Ultimately, this study was a call for more information. If overall weakness is indeed associated with autism, the next step is to learn how an exercise program can best build strength in autistic clients.
1. JK Kern, et. al., “Handgrip strength in autism spectrum disorder compared with controls,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(8), 2013.
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