LAY ABSTRACT: Difficulty with communication and social functioning are two outstanding core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, while there is no efficacious pharmacologic treatment available to deal with them. Traditional behavioral therapies usually require specialist therapist and be conducted in specific settings, increasing burdens on families and individuals with autism. Physical activity has long been found to promote physical and mental well-beings, and it is more affordable and versatile than traditional therapies. There is preliminary support for the use of physical activity interventions to improve communication and social functioning in individuals with autism. In this study, we quantitatively aggregate data from existing controlled trials to provide an up-to-date inquiry into the effectiveness of physical activity interventions on communication and social functioning in autistic children and adolescents. We included 12 trials involving 350 participants (8 trials reported communication outcomes and 11 trials reported social functioning outcomes) and found small to moderate benefits on communication and social functioning. Further analyses showed that the benefit of physical activity interventions is greater in younger participants. Results of this study suggest that physical activity interventions are effective to improve communication and social functioning in autistic children and adolescents, and early participation in the interventions can be more beneficial. Given their affordability, versatility, and efficacy, physical activity interventions could be considered a cost-effective option for autism spectrum disorder management in the future.
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