Can playground adventures help reduce symptoms of autism?

 TAU study finds challenge-based interventions in the playground can help children with autism 

A new Tel Aviv University study finds outdoor challenge-based interventions may be effective in reducing the overall severity of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) symptoms. The research found significant improvements in the social cognition, social motivation, and autistic mannerisms of the young subjects after outdoor adventure activities and describes a new path for enhancing the social and communication skills of children with ASD.

 One in 68 children in the US is diagnosed each year with ASD, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by socio-communicative impairments and restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests. The developmental disorder takes a deep social, emotional and economic toll on the child and his/her family. But research has also shown that the early diagnosis and early treatment of ASD can lead to vast improvements in the cognitive functioning and socio-communicative skills of children on the spectrum.

 Getting out of the classroom

The study was led by Prof. Ditza Antebi-Zachor of the Pediatric Department at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Director of Assaf Harofeh Medical Center’s Autism Center, and published in Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.

 The children who participated in the study underwent 13 weekly sessions of challenge-based activities with instructors. Each 30-minute session took place in urban parks near the participants’ kindergartens and kicked off with a song. Afterward, the children used the outdoor fitness equipment, moving from one to another throughout the session. The activities required the children to communicate with the instructors and with their peers, to ask for assistance or be noticed, for example.

 “Outdoor adventure programs (OAP) are designed to improve intrapersonal skills and interpersonal relationships by using adventurous activities to provide individual and group problem-solving and challenge tasks,” says Prof. Zachor. “The necessary tools for a successful OAP include establishing individual and group goals, building trust among participants, and providing activities that challenge and evoke stress but are nevertheless enjoyable.

 Improving communication skills

Fifty-one children from seven special-education kindergartens in Tel Aviv participated in the study, which was conducted in collaboration with ALUT, the National Israeli Association for Children with Autism, and ETGARIM, a nonprofit that sponsors outdoor activities for disabled people. The children, aged 3-7, all followed the same educational protocols, but the intervention group, comprising 30 students, also participated in an OAP.

 Prior to the adventure program, the children’s cognitive and adaptive skills were assessed by the kindergarten instructors using the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS), a questionnaire that assesses autism severity in different domains, and the Teachers’ Perceived Future Capabilities questionnaire. The information was obtained prior to and after completing the program.

 “Our study shows that outdoor adventure activities benefit children with autism and improve their social communication skills,” Prof. Zachor said. “We suggest including these fun activities in special education kindergartens and in communication classrooms at school in addition to traditional treatments. Parents of children with ASD can also enroll their kids in afterschool activities based on the principles of our research. It will allow the children to have fun during their leisure time while improving their communication skills.”

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