Autism 101

by Leslie Hewitt, DC

As chiropractors, we need to make adaptive function the top priority with our autistic patients. The first step is to assess and encourage motivation. As we all know, motivation ensures success over time and eventually this population in our offices will master exercises and activities. And don’t forget regular chiropractic adjustments to boost neurology, as this is a neurobiological disorder which means we can impact the nerve system with our very specialized care programs.

One in every 88 children is currently diagnosed within the autism spectrum (Autism Society 2013). Autism is a neurobiological disorder and not a disease. According to the Autism Society (2013), its most prominent symptoms include the following:

  • gross motor skills deficits
  • difficulty initiating and maintaining social interactions
  • repetitive fixation on behaviors, topics and movements
  • anxiety in social situations or public places
  • literal thinking, and difficulty understanding abstract or representational thought

Autism appears to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors that disrupt normal development and often cause regression in emerging social and communicative skills in children aged 1.5-3 years (AAP 2013). Many people are standing strong that there is no direct causal relationship to vaccinations and autism. I’m sorry but I have to disagree. Call it anecdotal, but many of my patients with autistic kids can clearly describe the vaccination symptoms and declining changes in their autistic kids.

In addition to regular chiropractic care, you have to address the gross motor issues connected with autism which can include low muscle tone/strength, poor stability, low strength endurance, compensatory movement patterning and poor gait (Staples & Reid 2010). These issues seem to occur prevalently in the Autism Spectrum Disorder population as a result of several factors, including:

  • neural firing deficits when performing movement,
  • lack of exploratory play during infancy and the toddler years,
  • lack of vigorous physical play in childhood and adolescence, and
  • poor access to appropriate and ongoing physical fitness programs.

In Summary:


  • One in 88 children is diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
  • Autism is a neurobiological disorder with several suspected environmental and genetic causes.
  • Behavioral, cognitive and gross motor deficits are common among those with autism.
  • Individuals with ASD have limited access to appropriate fitness programming.

Areas of Ability

  • Physical, adaptive and cognitive abilities must be accounted for.
  • Understanding these variables will guide goal-setting instructional style and behavior support.
  • Exercises and activities should be broken down or regressed to simpler versions.


  • Physical. Figure out which movements or exercises the autistic patient can and cannot do. Focus
  • on program development and fitness goal setting.
  • Adaptive. Assess the patient (or patient’s parents) motivation to perform fitness activities and specific movements. Develop a plan for behavior support and reinforcement.
  • Cognitive. Focus on learning style (visual and/or kinesthetic) and develop an appropriate teaching method.

Dr. Leslie Hewitt, D.C. is the CEO of The WOW Factor, Owner of Anatomy Power Chiropractic Wellness Studio, Chair of Conventions and Seminars for the California Chiropractic Association, and has been teaching fitness, aqua, and yoga for 32 years. She can be reached at and