'Fun and Games' After School Boost Autistic Kids' Motor Skills

Poster Presentation at Touro College Research Day Highlights Faculty Research on Athletic Program for Austic Kids

April 25, 2015
Asst. Prof. Alexander Lopez

An after-school program for children with autism featuring activities ranging from golf to yoga to indoor surfing significantly improves their motor skills, according to a new pilot study presented in a poster session at Touro College Research Day.

Organized by the Touro Research Collaborative, Touro College Research Day is being held from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 28, at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Touro College of Pharmacy campus at 230 West 125th Street in Harlem.

Alexander Lopez, an assistant professor at Touro, developed the Inclusive Sports and Fitness (ISF) program, based on his experience working with one boy with autism. “We got him to move from looking like a robot to hitting a golf ball 150 yards,” Dr. Lopez said. “He used to only say 'I'm sorry.' Now he'll walk up to you and say 'Hi, my name is Joshua.'”

The program consists of two 1.5 hour sessions per week for 12 weeks, with activities including a social skills group, metronome training, and sports and exercise including soccer, golf, tennis, yoga, and indoor “surfing” on a balance board. Each child works with one physical therapy or occupational therapy graduate student, as well as a normally-developing peer who serves as a “junior mentor.” Each session is limited to eight participants.

“I designed it as a sensory-based model that really focuses on their attention and arousal level,” Dr. Lopez explained. “Our ultimate goal is to get them to be mainstreamed into other activities. It's not a recreational program, it's a performance-based program. Everything that they do they do as athletes, we don't treat them any differently.”

He adds: “We want them to feel like they're typical, and that's what's building on their confidence and their desire to do more with their friends and peers when they leave us.”

To date, eight children have completed the program. The pilot study to be presented today includes six children with mild to moderate autism, all of whom underwent a formal test of their motor proficiency before and after the program. Despite the small size of the study, there was a significant improvement in overall functional task performance among the study participants. The test included eight subtests, seven of which improved, but significant differences were only seen for subtests on balance and running speed and agility.

“It's basically games and fun,” says June Kume-Kick, PhD, an assistant professor at Touro College and research coordinator for the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, who led the pilot study. Nevertheless, she added, “it is making a difference....It's remarkable to see the changes in their character.”

Dr. Kume-Kick and Dr. Lopez plan to study the effect of ISF on other skills in children with autism, including cognitive function.

The Touro Research Collaborative, a dedicated group of faculty who pursue research in the medical and health sciences, founded the Research Day—now in its fourth year—to foster collaborations among faculty and students. 

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