Salford Autism Exercise Project

The University of Salford has launched a project to help children with autism improve sleep and communication.

Dr. Amy Bidgood currently leads the Salford Autism Exercise Project, in collaboration with Dr David Tate and Project Officer Eve Marie Bent, and funded by The Waterloo Foundation. This project is investigating whether exercise intervention can improve the sleep of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and, in turn, whether this can improve children’s ability to learn new words.

We talked to the project team to find out more about the project.

1. Can you tell us what the Salford Autism Exercise Project is?

The Salford Autism Exercise project is an intervention project being run by researchers at the University of Salford. We are looking to see if giving autistic children swimming lessons can improve their sleeping habits and, in turn, improve their word learning. We understand that many autistic children struggle with their sleep, and this can have a knock-on effect on their learning. We are therefore trying to develop interventions to help improve autistic children’s sleep.

2. Where will you be conducting the project?

Because of the pandemic, we have moved all of the testing we would normally do in-person online. However, we can’t do the swimming lessons online! Children have 6 swimming lessons as part of the project and these are being held at The Seashell Trust in Cheadle.

3. How long will the project last?

The project has been running since June 2020 and will continue to run until January 2022.

4. Who can take part in the project?

We are inviting families from all around Manchester to take part in the project. We are looking for children between the ages of 7 and 11 years who have a diagnosis of Autism. The children need to be verbal and without a diagnosed intellectual disability for this project. They don’t need to have any known sleep issues and can still be accepted if they are on medication to help them sleep (such as melatonin).

5. What are you aiming to find out from the project?

Our project aims to find practical ways to help autistic children, specifically with sleep and learning. We hope that we can develop something that works on a day-to-day level to help support all autistic children achieve their potential.

6. What type of exercises will the children be doing?

All children who take part in the project will be invited to have 6 free swimming lessons. The swimming lessons will be run by specialist teachers who work at The Seashell Trust. The swimming groups will be only 3-4 children per session and with 2 teachers so the children can have a lot of support and encouragement whilst they are swimming. The swimming lessons consist of learning some practical skills followed by some playtime in the water. The children all seem to be loving the lessons!

7. Has this type of study been done before?

There have been a limited number of studies into the benefits of exercise on sleep in autistic children. Only two studies so far have looked specifically at swimming and sleep. There have also not been any studies into the benefits of exercise on word learning, although some studies have connected better sleep with improved word learning. Our study is unique in that we are aiming to improve sleep in children using swimming, which we also hope will help improve their word learning ability.

8. Do we know why autistic children have trouble sleeping?

Sleep issues are extremely common in autistic children with different studies quoting between 50% to 80% of autistic children struggling with sleep issues. Some of the main challenges autistic children face are difficulties falling asleep, difficulties staying asleep, and early waking. One theory suggests autistic people do not have the same levels of melatonin, a hormone related to sleep, as neurotypical people. Other theories suggest that sensory issues play a role, as well as not understanding the social cues for bedtime, such as it getting dark, and having bath and storytime.

9. Are you working with any support groups or charities?

We have worked closely with The Seashell Trust to develop the swimming programme for the children. The Seashell Trust are specialists in providing swimming lessons to children with additional needs such as autistic children, and their expertise has made sure that the lessons are suitable for the children taking part in our project. We have also been very fortunate to work with ‘Autism@Manchester’, a group of autistic adults and parents of autistic children, to help steer our research in the right direction to best support autistic children. We have also worked alongside local charity ‘SalfordAutism’ who have provided us with advice throughout the project.

10. Are there any future research projects planned?

In the future, we hope to expand our project to look at the benefits of different types of exercise. We also hope to see whether exercise can help other groups of children with their sleep and learning. We need to wait and see what our results show first, though, so watch this space!

For more details, you can email the project team (Dr Amy Bidgood, Dr David Tate, Eve Marie Bent) at and check out the Salford Autism Exercise Project website. You can also find them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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