Salford Autism Exercise Project
In the UK approximately 1% of the population has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Specifically, it is estimated around 150,000 children in the UK, and their families, are living with the condition. Autistic children often have difficulties with communication, and this can include learning new words. Many autistic children also have problems with sleep – this can include getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up at an appropriate time. Sleep is important for consolidating memories, including learning the meaning of new words and how to use them appropriately, so this lack of sleep may make it even more difficult for autistic children to develop their communication skills.
In the Salford Autism Exercise Project, we are running an intervention to test whether exercise can improve sleep for autistic children (aged 7-11), and whether this, in turn, can make it easier for them to learn new words. Children randomly placed in the intervention group take part in six swimming lessons with local specialist provide, the Seashell Trust. The lesson plan has been designed specifically for us by their expert instructors, to best enable the children to participate and enjoy the sessions, whilst doing the maximum amount of exercise possible. We test the children’s ability to learn novel words before they start the lessons, after the first week, and at the end of the six weeks, and we also measure their sleep throughout this period. Children in the waiting control group complete the word-learning tasks and sleep measures, and are then offered swimming lessons at the end – so nobody misses out.
Feedback and results
Initial feedback from children and parents is overwhelmingly positive. They enjoy the lessons, and parents report that sleep seems to have improved. There have been added benefits for the families, too, such as both children and parents making new friends, and finding about other local services from each other.
When we have finished collecting data, we will be able to test whether the children in the intervention group were better able to learn the novel words than the children in the control group, and whether their sleep improved more over the course of the project. If one or both of these prove to be the case, we will know that exercise can benefit autistic children’s sleep and/or word-learning. If so, we hope to expand the intervention in future to other groups of children and other forms of exercise.
Project Team: Dr Amy Bidgood, David Tate, Eve Bent
Research Group: Health Sciences Research Centre, Psychology, Cognitive Development
Project Funder: The Waterloo Foundation