| Someone once
asked me what, if anything, I would do differently
as principal of a school for autistic children.
I responded that I would have the chldren out running
and playing vigorously for at least an hour twice
a day. He smiled out of one side of his mouth, and
said, "And then where would you go next to
look for work?"
Maybe so, but it is my heart-felt conviction that
physical activity of some kind is vital to helping
autistic children, like me at one time, function.
By observation in my own life, I have long felt
strongly that aerobic exercise of any kind played
a valuable role in my being able to function on
a relatively high level as an autistic child and
now as well.
The reasons for the connection, however, remained
to me a mystery for many years. Then, when I did
start learning more about the aggravating factors
of autism, the connection started becoming clear.
The human body is truly a remarkable machine, able
to cleanse itself of heavy metals, toxins, opioids,
and the such. Sustained exercise enhances all of
the body's abilities, including this. Of course,
heightened physical activity means getting more
oxygen to the cells that need it most, the ones
in the brain. To me, it all made sense. No wonder
I love to walk and go bicycling so much.
This past week, yet another reason became apparent
to me: that of the connection between physical activity
and the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus
of the brain. A recent study at the Salk Institute
involving four groups of mice confirmed just such
a connection. The mice in group one were sedentary,
being the control group. The mice in group two had
regularly scheduled times for swimming; those in
group three could swim at anytime. Group four had
a running wheel; thus, the mice there were allowed
to run freely at any time.
At the end of the twelve days, it was not surprising
that mental development occurred in all four groups;
what was surprising, though, was the amount of difference
found among the four. Group four differed by twice
the number of new cells gained in group one. Keep
in mind that this was only for twelve days, not
a real significant amount of time in the total lifespan
of a mouse, I would think, anyway. Groups two and
three also faired much better than the control group.
Other studies have shown that the human brain is
plastic as well.
Some years ago, a group led by Dr. Toshiaki Hashimoto,
conducted a study based on age and overall brain
development. He found that during infancy this area
of the brain is much smaller in the autistic than
in the non-autistic group. He also found steady
rates of development of this area of the brain in
both groups, with the rate of development in the
autistic group being much steeper. (2)
So we know that rates of development differ as the
brain of an autistic individual struggles to catch
up with his non-autistic counterpart.
My point is this: autistic children need physical
activity to help them develop as well as to help
them deal with high levels of frustration from sensory
difficulties. I would even say that their body craves
it. If that physical activity is denied, then they
will find other, more inappropriate, ways to be
active. And it need not be anything highly structured
or with a lot of rules, either; simply kicking a
soccer ball around or bicycling, if done consistently,
would work just as well, in my view. I agree that
diets and drugs have their place in treatng autism,
but so does aerobic activity.
(1)Wasowicz, Lidia. (2000). Exercise does a brain
good. [Online]. Available HTTP: http://www.medserv.dk/health/1999/02/23/story03.htm
(2) Hashimoto, Tokiashi, et. al. (1995) Development
of the brainstem and cerebellum in autistic patients.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders,