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New Study Shows Running Improves Fitness, Communication for Children with Autism

“The results are extremely encouraging as millions of parents, caregivers and medical professionals grapple with how to best support children on the autism."

Date: November 14, 2016
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Jennifer Riekert, M.B.A.
Vice President of Communications
New York Medical College
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Study funded by Cigna Foundation and conducted by Achilles International finds running helps children with autism.

Valhalla, N.Y., November 14, 2016 – A new study funded by the Cigna Foundation shows that running improves fitness and communication among children with autism.

On Saturday, Nov. 12 at the Academy of Pediatric Physical Therapy’s Section on Pediatrics Annual Conference (SoPAC), researchers from Achilles International and New York Medical College (NYMC) released results of a collaborative four-month study, measuring the quantitative and qualitative effects of the Achilles Kids running program on restrictive/repetitive behaviors, social interaction, social communication, emotional responses and cognitive style on 94 students with autism in five schools. This real-world, “natural setting” study is among the largest to have been conducted to-date. Read the study publication.

The study showed profound and statistically significant improvements in key areas such as fitness markers and communication behaviors; further validating the team’s hypothesis that a vigorous school-based exercise program has potential to positively impact numerous physical, social, academic and emotional factors for students facing the highest levels of impairment. Study participants faced additional challenges including socioeconomic situations and little access to outside therapies and adaptive extracurricular programs.

“In a subset of students that were identified as having the most severe autism (based on the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS)), the study found statistical significant improvements in awareness, cognition, motivation and restrictive repetitive behaviors, i.e., self-inflicted injuries,” said Susan Ronan, PT, DPT, PCS, assistant professor of clinical physical therapy in the School of Health Sciences and Practice at NYMC. “These findings are encouraging and warrant further exploration in future research.”

Led by Ronan and Janet Dolot, PT, DPT, DrPH, OCS, assistant professor of clinical physical therapy also in the School of Health Sciences and Practice at NYMC, the team collected baseline, midterm and final data on a variety of factors related to the students’ fitness, communication, social awareness, quality of life and autism severity.

The Achilles Kids school-based running curriculum helps adaptive physical education teachers—whose students include children with autism—implement a running-based program in their schools. The students are given the goal of running 26.2 miles—the marathon distance—in a school year.

This school-based study is funded by World of Difference grants given to Achilles in 2014 and 2015 by long-time partner Cigna Foundation. Existing literature on this topic often examined small sample sizes or community-based programs, and so the Achilles and NYMC teams sought to quantifying extensive anecdotal evidence observed by Achilles showing physical, social, emotional and academic improvement in children with autism spectrum disorder who regularly ran with their program as part of their school day.

“It continues to be a major challenge for researchers to be able to study populations of children with autism in real-world settings like schools,” said Ronan. “We’re thrilled to have conducted one of the largest studies of its kind, particularly since many of the students who participated are from historically underrepresented communities.”

The Achilles Kids program currently serves more than 250 schools reaching 10,000 children with disabilities. A large number of participating students are members of minority groups, economically disadvantaged and non-English speaking.

“The results are extremely encouraging as millions of parents, caregivers and medical professionals grapple with how to best support children on the autism spectrum,” said Megan Wynne Lombardo, director of development at Achilles. 

About Achilles International

Achilles International is a worldwide organization that encourages people with disabilities to participate in mainstream running. www.achillesinternational.org

About New York Medical College

Founded in 1860, NYMC is one of the oldest and largest health sciences colleges in the country with more than 1,400 students, 1,300 residents and clinical fellows, nearly 3,000 faculty members, and 16,000 living alumni. The College, which joined the Touro College and University System in 2011, is located in Westchester County, New York, and offers advanced degrees from the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences, and the School of Health Sciences and Practice. With a network of affiliated hospitals that includes large urban medical centers, small suburban clinics and high-tech regional tertiary care facilities, NYMC provides a wide variety of clinical training opportunities throughout the tri-state region for medical students, residents, and other health providers.