International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) 2019

Montréal, QC, Canada


A new grounded theory of physical activity participation in autistic adults: Preliminary findings.


Andrew M. Colombo-Dougovito, Ph.D., CAPE (1); A. Josephine Blagrave, Ph.D. (2); and Seán Healy, Ph.D. (3)


(1) University of North Texas; (2) California State University, Chico; (3) University of Delaware


Background:  Physical activity (PA) is an evidence-based practice for individuals on the autism spectrum (Dillon, Adams, Goudy, Bittner, & McNamara, 2017). Although a growing body of literature has explored PA experiences through first-hand accounts of children on the autism spectrum (Blagrave, 2017;Healy, Msetfi, & Gallagher, 2013), the perspective of autistic adults remains unheard. Thus far, to understand the autistic* adults’ experience of PA, research has primarily relied on the perspective of caregivers (Blagrave & Colombo-Dougovito, 2019; Colombo-Dougovito, 2017; Nichols, Block, Bishop & McIntire, 2018). Due tothe absence of research that exists regarding PA from the perspective of autistic adults, there exists a limited knowledge of the appropriateness and generalizability of current models and theories of PA used in the fields of health and kinesiology for the autistic adult.

Objectives:  Therefore, to better inform future intervention or programming practice, a grounded theory study (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Urquhart, 2013) was conducted to develop a theory of PA participation in autistic adults. 

Methods: Autistic adults (n=25) from the United States and the United Kingdom were recruited through various social media platforms and by a process of snowballing. Semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with the participants regarding their retroactive experiences as children participating in PA, as well as their current PA and health perceptions and behaviors. All data were thematically coded (Braun & Clark, 2006), and using constant comparison method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Urquhart, 2013) were formed into 4 broad categories. These categories were theoretically analyzed.  

Results: A total of 29 codes emerged from the thematic coding process; these codes included bullying, body image, environmental barriers and facilitators, motivation, perceived competence, as well as instance of social positives and success. These codes were formed into 4 broad categories: (1) individual attributes; (2) environmental factors; (3) social relationships; and (4) individual outcomes. A preliminary grounded theory of PA experience for autistic adults was formed and will be presented. 

Conclusions: The environment is often cited as the greatest barrier to PA for both those on  the autism spectrum. Findings from this study indicate that, though the environment acts as both a barrier and facilitator to PA in autistic adults, social relationships can have an equal or larger impact on the PA experiences of autistic adults across their lifespan. However, both of these factors are mediated by the attributes of the individual and are not necessarily equally impactful for each individual. For example, an individual with a greater perception of their own ability will be less impacted by environmental or social factors than an individual with a low perception. In light of these findings, providing opportunities to build skill and success can help to insulate individuals from external factors that may dissuade them from PA; this new model may better explain PA participation in adults on the autism spectrum. Further research is needed to explore the reproducibility of these findings and further refine this new grounded theory.

(*intentional use of identity first language;Kenny et al., 2016)