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Mixed martial arts as a means to improve social communication and executive functioning in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a pervasive neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by numerous deficits including social dysfunction and difficulties with tasks that require the use of executive functions (EFs). Social and executive deficits disrupt daily functioning among many individuals with ASD. The goal of the present study was to evaluate the effectiveness of a martial arts intervention in reducing social dysfunctions, and improving social skills and EFs in children with ASD. School-aged children (Mage = 9.34 years; 82.4% boys) with a clinical diagnosis of ASD were recruited for the present study. Clinical diagnoses were confirmed by administration of the ADOS-2; all children met criteria for ASD. Intellectual functioning was low average. Children were randomly assigned into one of two groups: the mixed martial arts (MMA) intervention group and the waitlist control (WLC) group. The MMA intervention featured activities targeted to train specific domains of EFs, namely behavioral inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. The MMA intervention also included typically-developing peer buddies who helped facilitate the social skills component of the study by modeling appropriate behavior and providing opportunities for social engagement during the MMA class sessions. Comprehensive assessments were conducted before and after the intervention. The MMA group was scheduled to receive a 26-class session (approximately 13-weeks) adaptive mixed martial arts class while the WLC group did not participate in any martial arts program between pre- and post-test. Children in both groups were administered a battery of standardized assessments and observational measures, including parent reports and laboratory-based tests of social and executive functioning. Results indicated that the MMA group had significantly lower social dysfunction, higher social skills, and better executive functioning (e.g., behavior and emotion regulation, working memory and cognitive flexibility) at post-test compared to the WLC group (effect sizes for the interaction effects of time by group ranged from .67 to 1.61). The intervention appeared to be efficacious in meeting its goals of improving the social skills and executive functioning of children with ASD. The study provides theoretical implications for the malleability of EFs in children with ASD, and practical implications for utilizing peer mediation to target social deficits.

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