Interview: Improving physical activity across the lifespan for kids and youth with ASD
Interview: Improving physical activity across the lifespan for kids and youth with ASD

In June 2018, Patrick Jachyra, PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, was one of the two recipients of this year's Autism Scholars Awards, administered by the Council of Ontario Universities. The highly-competitive Awards support the latest in leading-edge research in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

At Holland Bloorview, Patrick works in the Critical Disability and Rehabilitation Studies (CDARS) lab under the supervision of Dr. Barbara Gibson, and in the autism research centre (ARC) under the supervision of Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou, where his research explores the experiences of children and youth with ASD participating in sport and physical activity.

Below, we asked Patrick a little bit more about his research and his hopes for addressing some of the most prominent issues facings kids and youth with ASD when it comes to physical activity.

Q1.Tell us a bit about your background and career path in research and childhood disability.

During my undergraduate studies in kinesiology, I became interested in research, so much that I completed two undergraduate research theses. During my teaching practice placements as part of the teacher education program, I noticed that young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in my classes were often relegated to the sidelines. This initial experience sparked my interest to develop a broader knowledge base of ASD, while also exploring methods on how to engage kids with ASD. When I turned to the literature, the research was limited and as a result, I decided to contribute to the field by conducting this research.

Q2.What interests you most about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how are you looking to make an impact in the field?

For me, I’m interested in further elucidating and understanding the strengths and potential of children and youth with ASD. Although some of the research has traditionally focused on deficits and challenges, my approach to research seeks to understand and imagine how to channel the strengths and abilities of kids and youth with ASD. In doing so, my aim is to have the field of childhood disability research, educators, and parents focus on what children and youth with ASD can do, rather than what they can’t do. I’m excited to move beyond this deficit-based approach to develop ways in which children and youth with ASD reach and maximize their full potential in all aspects of their lives.

Q3.Tell us about your research in physical activity for kids and youth with ASD - what are some of the current challenges facing these kids when it comes to physical activity?

Despite the well-documented health benefits of physical activity participation, children and youth with ASD are less likely to be physically active compared to their age-related peers, and increasingly become even less active during adolescence in both scholastic and community contexts. Their limited physical activity participation in turn positions children and youth with ASD to potentially experience decrements in their psycho-social development and well-being, and potentially develop debilitating chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression.

Much of the research to date has focused on the biological and behavioural factors that influence participation. However, my research took an interdisciplinary approach to understand the interconnected individual, biological, social, and institutional factors which influence their participation. A province-wide survey across Southern Ontario was first used to develop an understanding of their rates and patterns of participation, and found that participants’ lack of participation during childhood contributed to their decreased levels of participation in adolescence. The findings of this study provide an opportunity to not only conceptualize how physical activity and therapy can be combined together, but also highlight the importance of ensuring that children and youth with ASD are offered appropriate supports and opportunities to be active.

Q4.What are your career aspirations?

Following the completion of my doctoral studies, I will embark on post-doctoral training to further prepare to become an independent scientist. My goal is to conduct research with children with ASD, their families, and rehabilitation sectors to understand how we can meet their diverse health and well-being needs. As I work to establish a program of research, I endeavour to understand how we can better support the physical, mental health and well-being needs of individuals with ASD across their lifespan.

Q5.Finally, what is one misconception about ASD that you wish to challenge?

One of the misconceptions is that physical activity participation is often positioned as a positive experience when approached from a health promotion angle. However, physical activity participation can also be problematic. For example, I was surprised to find how often children and youth with ASD experienced bullying when participating in physical activity.

Knowing this, it would helpful to approach physical activity as both a challenge and a resource. The challenge in those bullying experiences is debilitating, but physical activity is also a resource for some participants that allows them to escape from the mundane and highly- routinized lives. And for some young people with ASD, physical activity allows them to feel free and liberated from some of the challenges they experience in understanding and navigating the social world.