Mind-Body Exercise (Tai Chi) Improves Self-Control for Children with Autism


By Jen Wilson
18th July 2013

Emotional and behavioral control are often impaired in individuals with autism (ASD). Children are especially prone to emotional and verbal outbursts, limited social functioning, repetitive and disruptive behaviors, and strained communication. These traits common to ASD make it difficult for children with ASD to succeed academically, socially, or in interpersonal relationships.

Although there are some intensive treatments aimed at transforming these behaviors in children with ASD, they usually require a large investment of time and energy by the children and their parents or caregivers. Programs that focus on behavior modification in ASD can be beneficial, but may take years to be effective. Therefore, alternative methods, such as music therapy, diet modification, acupuncture, and massage therapy have been the focus of recent research.

Another approach that has been studied, mostly with older adults who have neurocognitive problems, is mind-body exercise. These interventions have been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and insomnia in adults. However, few studies have attempted to test mind-body approaches on children, and in particular, children with ASD.

Therefore, Agnes S. Chan of the Department of Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong recently conducted a mind-body experiment on a sample of 46 children with ASD. The participants underwent eight one-hour sessions of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) or Nei Yang Gong, a traditional Chinese mind-body exercise aimed at reducing stress, increasing emotional regulation and improving peace and calm.

At the end of the eight sessions, Chan found that the children who received Nei Yang Gong(Tai Chi) had significantly higher levels of emotional control than the PMR children. Based on parental reports, autistic symptoms were reduced and behaviors and tempers were more controlled after the children participated in the mind-body intervention.

Chan believes that these results show promise for alternative treatments for children with ASD. Even children with limited mental and communication capacities were able to benefit from the mind-body exercise. Although this study did not incorporate additional components of mind-body interventions, such as diet or physical exercise, Chan believes that adding those elements to ASD interventions might further improve symptoms.

"This encouraging finding confirms the potential clinical applicability of this Chinese mind-body exercise in enhancing the self-control of individuals with various brain [problems]," said Chan. She added that these promising results should motivate future research of the benefits of mind-body interventions for children with other psychological problems such as traumatic stress and ADHD.

Chan, A.S., Sze, S.L., Siu, N.Y., Lau, E.M., Cheung, M. (2013). A Chinese mind-body exercise improves self-control of children with autism: A randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68184. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068184