Exploring Possibilities: Physical Therapy for Children with Autism

Do you know that 1 in 36 children has been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? This is according to estimates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network1. In addition to ASD affecting how children perceive and socialize with others, they often face challenges with motor skills, balance, and coordination. 

The good news is that physical therapy, including physical therapy, offers some promise as one of the ways to effectively manage and even reduce the occurrence of these physical manifestations. While more research is needed to establish clear evidence that physical therapy reliably provides improved outcomes, especially in the long-term, studies do offer some compelling findings worth noting.

Physical therapy approaches

A challenge faced by physical therapists when treating children with ASD is that each child has an individualized set of symptoms, both behavioral and physical. This means that treatment requires a highly customized physical activity program. That said, “Meta-analysis and systematic reviews have concluded that physical activity has positive effects on social skills and behavior in young children and adolescents with autism, as noted in “Beneficial Use and Potential Effectiveness of Physical Activity in Managing Autism Spectrum Disorder” published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience2. This study found that physical exertion, through exercise therapy, decreased problem behaviors or increased appropriate behaviors so is considered an evidence-based practice for therapists. Full body movement and mobility exercises may draw increased focus as a tool for therapists, even if they’re not considered conventional treatments.

Less conventional treatments

Some physical therapists suggest less conventional approaches to treatment for ASD. These therapies may include activities such as horseback riding, dolphin-assisted interactions, the use of music, yoga, dancing, martial arts, and artistic endeavors. It’s important to acknowledge that the vast array of treatments, therapies, and programs available have varying degrees of empirical evidence to support them. All of these treatments are connected with motor skills, balance, and coordination.

For example, a study titled, “Dance promotes positive benefits for negative symptoms in autism spectrum disorder (ASD): A systematic review” published in the Journal of Complementary Therapies in Medicine3 concluded that dance had a positive effect on ASD associated symptoms. Areas of improvement included social involvement, behavior, communication skills, body awareness, and mental health.

Martial arts training also has demonstrated positive outcomes for children with ASD. In fact, “experiments and analysis fully demonstrated that martial arts routines have a good effect in the intervention and treatment of children with autism, which can well improve the comprehensive quality of patients.” This was a study titled, “Comprehensive Intervention and Effect of Martial Arts Routines on Children with Autism” published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health4.

The takeaways

Physical therapy for children with ASD offers promise as a way to address the associated physical challenges. It also unlocks a world of possibilities for improved motor skills and sensory regulation to enhance social interaction and improve general health. Physical therapists are at the forefront of efforts to conceive of and test new methods to address the symptoms of ASD and improve the quality of life for children through exercise therapy.

1 National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder


Reviewed: April 4, 2023 

2 Sefen JAN, Al-Salmi S, Shaikh Z, AlMulhem JT, Rajab E and Fredericks S (2020) “Beneficial Use and Potential Effectiveness of Physical Activity in Managing Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Frontiers Behavioral Neuroscience 14:587560. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2020.587560 Published: 22 October 2020.

3 Chen T, Wen R, Liu H, Zhong X, Jiang C. “Dance intervention for negative symptoms in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2022 May;47:101565. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2022.101565. Epub 2022 Feb 23. PMID: 35259569.
4 Li L, Li H, Zhao Z, Xu S. “Comprehensive Intervention and Effect of Martial Arts Routines on Children with Autism.” Journal of Environmental Public Health. 2022 Aug 31;2022:9350841. doi: 10.1155/2022/9350841. Retraction in: Journal of Environmental Public Health. 2023 Jul 26;2023:9763140. PMID: 36089974; PMCID: PMC9451956.

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