'Not everybody enjoys physical activity': A qualitative Twitter study of the barriers experienced by autistic adults


Takeaway: (1) Autistic adults recognize the importance of physical activity; yet they are often forced to prioritize their mental health due to inaccessible environments. (2) Contrary to common misconceptions doing physical activity with peers or family members was often preferable for autistic adults. (3) Developing spaces that are sensory friendly (e.g., no music or intentionally positioning equipment) is vital for recreation facilities to make them more accessible for autistic adults. (4) Researchers and practitioners must continue to develop accessible practices to aid autistic adults engage in physical activity within their community. (5) Twitter and other social media platforms have potential to serve as a justice-oriented tool for engaging with typically excluded segments of certain marginalized groups; however, there are many ethical considerations left to be answered.

Cite as: Colombo-Dougovito, A. M., McNamara, S., Kupferstein, H., & Blagrave, A. J. (2021, Feb). “Not everybody enjoys physical activity”: A qualitative Twitter study of the barriers experienced by autistic adults. Poster presented at the National Consortium for Physical Education for Individuals with Disabilities Virtual Poster Sessions, Remote.



Recent evidence (Garcia-Pastor et al., 2019) suggests that autistic adults are less likely to be physically active than children and adolescents on the spectrum. Suggesting that physical inactivity is either maintained or increases as individuals age. Given the myriad of potential benefits from physical activity engagement (Bremer & Lloyd, 2016; Healy et al., 2018; Saunders et al., 2016; Schuch & Stubbs, 2019), the rate of physical inactivity among autistic adults is discouraging. Yet, little focus has been given to the experiences of autistic adults regarding physical activity, nor on how to utilize affinities and increase access; more-so-even in populations often missed by traditional recruitment techniques.


Therefore, through a phenomenological inquiry, the purpose of this study was to gather information from autistic adults about their experiences with physical activities and the role it has in their daily lives utilizing the social media platform, Twitter.


Through Twitter, a total of 21 participants recruited that had a diagnosis of autism or identified as autistic; though only 11 participants engaged for the duration of the study. Of those that consented, a majority self-identified as “female” (n = 14); two individuals self-identified as “male”, one as a “transgender male”, one as “female/Agender”, one as “female/Demigirl”, and one as “female with masculine tendencies”. Over half of those consented self-reported a motor-related issue such as dyspraxia, low muscle tone, hypermobility, motor planning, or arthritis. A total of 6 “Twitter chats” were used as open, focus groups using the hashtag #AutStudy. A total of 35 questions were posed across the 6 chats; the first 5 chats had 5 questions each and the 6th chat had 10 questions. The primary author tweeted each question during a predesignated day and time; all authors followed up with each “reply”. Data were aggregated and thematically analyzed (Braun & Clarke, 2006) for common themes among the responses.


Overall, several themes emerged from the data. Participants, each, recognized the importance of physical activity in their daily lives and connected participation in physical activity to improvements in mental health. However, most participants stressed the difficulty with access to physical activity spaces, a lack of knowledge about what to do, increased physical issues (e.g., joint pain, dizziness) due to physical activity engagement, the necessity for executive function capacity to plan for physical activity, and a need to balance current mental health with physical activity engagement.


Through the use of Twitter, authors were able to gather data from a broader sample than through a traditional method of recruitment. Findings suggest that autistic adults understand the importance of physical activity but may not have foundational knowledge to know what to do or may not have access to accommodating spaces for physical activity. Further, while most participants participated semi-regularly (i.e., at least once per week) in physical activity, this was often counterbalanced by an individual's mental health status. Despite acknowledged benefits, if an individual was having difficulty coping, they would forego physical activity.


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