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Parent Awareness: Childhood Obesity in Autism and the Role of Physical Therapy

Grant Winners

  • Melissa Tovin, MA, PhD – College of Health Care Sciences
  • Martha M. Wichert, PT, DPT – College of Health Care Sciences
  • Nancy Lieberman, EdS, CCC-SLP – Mailman Segal Center for Human Development
  • Marlene Sotelo, EdD
  • Allison Edwards, BS – College of Health Care Sciences


  • Rick Davis, PA-C, EdD – College of Health Care Sciences
  • Roni Leiderman, PhD – Mailman Segal Center for Human Development


Award Winners

Childhood obesity and Autism Disorder (ASD) are at national epidemic levels and the numbers continue to rise. While each health issue alone is the focus of national attention, there is evidence of an even higher incidence of obesity in children with ASD. Broward County has slightly higher than national averages in both autism and obesity, making this a primary local public health and economic issue. Though ASD is primarily a communication disorder, these children often struggle with delayed motor development, compromised muscle tone, impaired balance and coordination, and sensory issues that inhibit participation in physical activities. The combined effects of decreased physical activity and impaired social interaction may result in obesity. Physical therapy (PT) plays an important role in treating ASD and preventing secondary impairments such as obesity, yet many children do not receive PT. The CDC stresses the importance of accurate prevalence reporting of ASD in making plans for funding interventions. This study aims to examine overweight and obesity in children with ASD in Broward County, and parent awareness of the role of physical therapy. A mixed-methods sequential explanatory design will be utilized. A quantitative aspect of the design will employ survey research method: data will be collected via a Web-based survey. A qualitative aspect will entail focus group interviews conducted with parents of children with ASD in Broward. Descriptive analysis of survey data will be provided directly through the web-based survey platform via SPSS, including demographics, response percentages, and categorization of responses to open items. Interview transcripts will be analyzed using the constant comparative method. This study is intended to fill the gap in knowledge of obesity and physical therapy utilization in children with ASD. Findings will determine the community's need foe collaborative educational and therapeutic programs aimed to decrease the risk of obesity in these children.

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