Mind-Body Exercise Improves Self-Control for Children with Autism

Emotional and behavioral control are often impaired in individuals with autism (ASD). Children are especially prone to emotional and verbal outbursts, limited social functioning, repetitive and disruptive behaviors, and strained communication. These traits common to ASD make it difficult for children with ASD to succeed academically, socially, or in interpersonal relationships.

Although there are some intensive treatments aimed at transforming these behaviors in children with ASD, they usually require a large investment of time and energy by the children and their parents or caregivers. Programs that focus on behavior modification in ASD can be beneficial, but may take years to be effective. Therefore, alternative methods, such as music therapy, diet modification, acupuncture, and massage therapy have been the focus of recent research.

Another approach that has been studied, mostly with older adults who have neurocognitive problems, is mind-body exercise. These interventions have been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and insomnia in adults. However, few studies have attempted to test mind-body approaches on children, and in particular, children with ASD.

Therefore, Agnes S. Chan of the Department of Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong recently conducted a mind-body experiment on a sample of 46 children with ASD. The participants underwent eight one-hour sessions of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) or Nei Yang Gong, a traditional Chinese mind-body exercise aimed at reducing stress, increasing emotional regulation and improving peace and calm.

At the end of the eight sessions, Chan found that the children who received Nei Yang Gong had significantly higher levels of emotional control than the PMR children. Based on parental reports, autistic symptoms were reduced and behaviors and tempers were more controlled after the children participated in the mind-body intervention.

Chan believes that these results show promise for alternative treatments for children with ASD. Even children with limited mental and communication capacities were able to benefit from the mind-body exercise. Although this study did not incorporate additional components of mind-body interventions, such as diet or physical exercise, Chan believes that adding those elements to ASD interventions might further improve symptoms.

“This encouraging finding confirms the potential clinical applicability of this Chinese mind-body exercise in enhancing the self-control of individuals with various brain [problems],” said Chan. She added that these promising results should motivate future research of the benefits of mind-body interventions for children with other psychological problems such as traumatic stress and ADHD.

Chan, A.S., Sze, S.L., Siu, N.Y., Lau, E.M., Cheung, M. (2013). A Chinese mind-body exercise improves self-control of children with autism: A randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68184. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068184

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  • nate

    July 18th, 2013 at 11:12 PM

    if this works then why not!its not like there are many other quick options with a better outcome right now.so why not experiment.the only concern would be to make sure these new methods do not negatively affect the children in any way,that they do not have any psychological side effects so to speak.

  • taryn p.

    July 19th, 2013 at 4:15 AM

    This is wonderful news I think. Autism is not an ordinary disease and sometimes calls for treatment that is not ordinary either. Autistic children have been sold short, with the assumption made that they could never master something as intense as mind-body exercises and practices. I guess we have all been proven wrong.

    This is great hope for families who live with this daily and who are always so open and receptive to new ideas and alternative therapies to help their children.

  • Braden

    July 20th, 2013 at 1:54 AM

    “Even children with limited mental and communication capacities were able to benefit from the mind-body exercise. ”

    This is a very encouraging fact. often treatment methods show a good result of the entire group but a small sub set is left out and they do not benefit.to have even those children with deficits experience the gains is something to cheer about!

  • bowen

    July 20th, 2013 at 5:10 AM

    It will be forward thinking ideas like this that will eventually help us to overcome autism.

    Those children are still in there even when it seems like they are only a hell of themselves. They are there and they deserve tools like the rest of us utilize to live life to the fullest. Bravo to researchers who are daily making steps that help these children and their families.

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