It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme this year is “Moving more for our mental health”.

The message is especially important for autistic and neurodivergent people, who experience more mental health challenges than the general population.

But there can be barriers in the way to taking part in physical activity for those of us who are neurodivergent.

Dr Patrick Jachyra, of Durham University, has spent much of his career exploring these barriers and considering how we can do things differently.

Patrick trained as a PE teacher, did a PhD and completed a fellowship in psychiatry before he moved from his native Toronto, Canada, to become an assistant professor of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham.

He says we need to stop blaming individuals for their own mental health problems and look instead at how the environment is affecting them – with a view to changing it.

Here are five ideas about autistic mental health, physical activity and research that guide Patrick’s work:

1. Small amounts of physical activity can have a big effect on the brain

“We know physical activity can boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy. We’ve seen that exercise even involves changes in our stress levels through complex biological neural factors in the brain.

The more we’re active, the more we can see changes in the brain such as in the hippocampus which is so important for consolidating our memories and processing our emotions. We’ve also seen it can help reduce the risk of depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Small things can have cumulative benefits. Something as simple as walking 10 minutes a day can be all you need to make some of these meaningful changes in the brain.

2. Fun and connection are more important than what activity you do

“It’s more about ‘let’s get moving’. There’s not one activity that’s better than others - all have potential benefits. Things like fun, enjoyment, the pleasure of movement and its stress-relieving qualities are all more important than the idea of a magic fix.

We also have to change the narrative that exercise has to be the gym or a marathon, or that you have to do it six times a week. It’s finding something that you enjoy and gives you meaning and connection, whether that’s to the activity, to animals, to people, or to the environment.

Small things like walking, gardening or cycling can be beneficial as long as people feel safe, have fun, have power of choice, and freedom to move.”

3. Autistic people can face barriers when it comes to physical activity

“Some of the most obvious barriers are lack of time, cost, accessibility, and environments that don’t take sensory sensitivities into account.

We had one autistic woman tell us that when she goes to the gym and wants to run on the treadmill, there’s no blind to stop the sun coming in and it’s so full on and she can’t do it despite all her efforts and motivation.

We’ve had so many accounts provided to us about bad and traumatic experiences in PE or community sport. For some people it’s so bad they just can’t go back to being active. And there’s such an overemphasis on sport. While sport might be good for some autistic and neurodivergent people, we can’t keep focusing on that, especially in our schools where we know it is not really working well. We need to reimagine what PE can look like in schools.

We also need to improve knowledge and awareness of neurodivergence. For example, you might go to a gym, and the trainer has no clue how to support someone who is neurodivergent. We’re almost setting people up to fail from the beginning.

4. Mental health is as much a problem with the environment as with the individual 

“We have to remember what neurodivergent people are telling us – that the world is exhausting, traumatic and difficult place to live. We need to acknowledge this and work to change how environments are set up.

We expect people to live in these environments that are profoundly not accommodating to them and challenge their mental health – from sensory sensitivities to bullying and exclusion, loneliness for some, burnout, stigma and discrimination.  

We have to move beyond the individualised ‘what’s the problem with the person’ and recognise what’s going on in the environment, how environments are built and how society is constructed.

As much as we need intervention and support, we need to focus on prevention as well. And that could be understanding how we support the everyday lives of neurodivergent people because we have such a long way to go.

5. Research can and should change lives

When I was 16 years old, I used to work in a sleep-away camp. We had a camper who was constantly getting into scrimmages with other campers. At the time we were told to regulate his behaviour and penalise him, but we were missing the boat entirely. What he was doing was having a hard time from being away from home.

One day I found him in the grass and sat next to him. I wanted to understand what his life was like and what was going on in his life. After a few minutes he told me that camp was overwhelming and he was autistic – I had never heard of autism. So I tried to understand what autism was and what we were doing to support this child.

That opened the door for me. I think sometimes research can overlook the importance of life experiences and focuses on the factors impacting mental health, and loses the individual . But I try to firmly ground my research in the lived experiences of the everyday lives of autistic and neurodivergent people.

My research is often co-produced. It’s about working with a diverse group of people to understand their needs and to share that power. We need research to be impacting the lives of people, and not just sitting on a university bookshelf where nobody is accessing it.”

Listen to our This Is Autism podcast with Dr Jachyra