Understanding the experiences of physical activity programs of children with asd from the perspective of their parents: How important is body language?


Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face many barriers to physical activity (PA) participation. This qualitative study explored the experiences of children with ASD in PA programs from the perspective of their parents. A thematic analysis was carried out on the 12 interviews with parents of children with ASD who were able to participate independently in community programs. Four main themes were co-constructed: Stigma – parents hid their child's ASD diagnosis to avoid resulting stigma but also mentioned motor and cognitive differences that their child faced, giving rise to the dilemma of the value/need to share the diagnosis. Body language (BL): obvious or misinterpreted – parents described their child's BL as obvious but spoke of times when their child's BL was misinterpreted. Many of the emotions described as obvious were basic or 'intrinsic' emotions (e.g., happiness/sadness), whereas many of the misinterpreted emotions were non-basic or 'socially-developed' (e.g., shyness/discomfort). PA challenges – many challenges parents spoke about were due to their child's lack of confidence, often manifested as 'drifting off'. Parents told stories where their children were left out of games and wondered if their BL was misread as unengaged when in reality they were shy. Instructors are critical – Instructors' lack of understanding of ASD was seen as a key issue. Experiences with instructors varied from very negative (e.g., asking a child to leave) to being highly adaptive and motivational. In summary, attention to and understanding of a child's body language (specifically non-basic emotions) might provide better and less-stigmatizing information for instructors than diagnosis.