Effects of a School-Based Exercise Intervention Program on Stress and Executive Functioning in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Other Special Education Needs
Objectives: To investigate the impacts of a school-based exercise intervention on stress and executive functioning in adolescents with ASD or other Special Education Needs (SEN).
Methods: A Within-Subjects Experimental Design was utilized, with each participant partaking in 1) one week of Exercise Intervention (20-minutes of aerobic exercise per day), and 2) one week of Education As Usual (EAU). Intervention condition order was randomized across classroom (n=2), with ASD and SEN participants distributed across classrooms. The exercise intervention was implemented by regular school staff, without specialist equipment or resources. Participants were adolescents with ASD (n=24; 1f, 23m) or other SEN (n=29; 15f, 14m) with intellectual abilities within the normal to low range, matched on Chronological Age (p=0.24), Verbal Abilities (British Ability Scales Word Definition and Verbal Similarities; p=0.13), and Nonverbal Abilities (British Ability Scales Matrices; p=0.80). The Stress Survey Scale for Individuals with Autism or Other Pervasive Developmental Disorders (SSS; Groden et al., 2001), and computer-based tasks indexing the executive functions of Inhibitory Control and Attention Switching (Burns, Riggs, & Beck, 2012), were each administered during both the Exercise Intervention and EAU conditions. Experimentally blinded research assistants conducted these tasks within 90-minutes of completion of the 4th (Thursday) and 5th (Friday) sessions of each week.
Results: We observed significant reductions in self-reported stress with Exercise relative to EAU (SSS; Exercise M=97.04, SD=23.88; EAU M=107.71, SD=24.38, F(1,52) = 19.920; p < 0.001, np2 = .281). We also observed significant improvements in both of the Executive Function tasks. For the Inhibition Task, Exercise Intervention significantly reduced Congruent/Incongruent trial difference relative to EAU, reflecting improved inhibitory control (Accuracy: F(1,51) = 12.236, p < 0.001, np2 = .193). For the Attention Switching Task, Exercise Intervention reduced Switch/Non-Switch trial difference relative to EAU, reflecting improved attention switching ability (Accuracy: F(1,50)= 15.336, p < 0.001, np2 = .246). These effects did not interact with Group (ASD, SEN), and each effect maintained statistical significance when analyzed separately for the ASD and SEN groups.
Conclusions: The current findings provide evidence for the effectiveness of a school-based aerobic exercise intervention program for reducing stress and enhancing executive functioning in adolescents with ASD.