Creighton Study Finds Gymnastics May Benefit Children with Autisum

Creighton Study Finds Gymnastics May Benefit Children with Autism

Sooner or later, the difficulty of finding sporting or recreational opportunities confronts all parents caring for a child with a disability.

So when Bobbi Greiner, OTD’05, BSHS’05, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Creighton, decided to see if regular participation in gymnastics might improve the quality of life for children with autism, she turned to Elizabeth Lilla and Metro Stars Gymnastics (see article here).

“Our research group spoke with Metro Stars and asked if they would help us develop a class just for kids with autism to see if recreational gymnastics might impact their social skills, their social interactions and the stereotypical behaviors associated with autism,” she said.

The research group, composed of Greiner and OT students Bailey Cunningham, OTD’17; Caitlin Eis, OTD’17; Teresa Eklund, OTD’17; Jennifer Rauch, BA’13, OTD’17; and Carly Sloboth, OTD’17, had no difficulty persuading the gymnastics school to participate. Metro Stars already caters to students with special needs, and Lilla, its founder and owner, is herself a graduate of Creighton’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy program.

The students created two classes for the children. One class participated in structured gymnastics classes, the other in unstructured activities. Pre- and post-study assessments were performed on the children, ages 5 to 11.

The results, which Greiner said she hopes will be published, found that weekly participation in recreational gymnastics, for a period of eight weeks, improved the ability of the children to interact with other children.

“The qualitative information provided by the parents showed that they felt the program was beneficial in terms of social interaction,” she said. “They also expressed that the people at the facility understood aspects of autism and other disabilities, which made it more comfortable for them as compared with more mainstream sports where there can be a lot more uncertainty.

“Preliminary findings indicate that recreational gymnastics may have positive implications on social skills and the development of leisure interests for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Greiner said.

And while that’s promising news, Greiner said the program also proved a much-needed boost for the participating children and their families.

“Most kids their ages are in softball or baseball or something,” she said. “But kids with autism often have a more difficult time participating in that type of thing, so this gymnastics class was one thing they could participate in that provided a pretty positive experience.”