PhD Profile: Patrick Jachyra Examines Physical Activity Participation Among Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

PhD candidate Patrick Jachyra is critically examining how social, behavioural, cultural, institutional, and public policy mechanisms mediate physical activity participation for young people with ASD. Recently awarded the Kimel Family Graduate Student Scholarship in Pediatric Disability Research (2016-2017) from Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Patrick sat down with us to discuss his research endeavours.


Tell us a bit about your PhD research.

Boys in their young teens preparing to play soccer on a field outdoors

I am a Rehabilitation Sciences Institute student, and my research explores physical activity participation among young people diagnosed with ASD. Young people with ASD are less likely to be physically active compared to their peers, and increasingly become even less active during adolescence in both scholastic and community contexts.

The combination of declining physical activity, side effects of medication treating core symptoms of ASD, and highly sedentary behaviours position young people diagnosed with ASD to experience reduced psycho-social development and well-being. They can also become vulnerable to developing chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression.


How are you gathering this data?

To generate my data, young people diagnosed with ASD are participating in two interviews and creating digital stories (similar to a YouTube video). This helps me understand their habits and patterns of participation, and to examine whether current implementations and conceptualizations of physical activity meet the diverse needs of young people with ASD.


What are the implications of your research for rehabilitation and physical therapy?

Physios are movement experts who seek to enhance the health and well-being of others, and this research has the potential to inform rehabilitation practice to not only consider the frequency, intensity, type and time of physical activity during exercise prescription, but to also consider the social forces that mediate participation for young people with ASD. This research also breaks new ground in exploring how physiotherapists and rehabilitation professionals can optimally create, promote, and implement physical activity opportunities for young people diagnosed with ASD.


Head shot of Patrick JachyraWhat inspired you to conduct this research?

I was training to become a Health and Physical Education teacher, and noticed that the young people diagnosed with ASD in my classes were often relegated to the sidelines. This experience inspired me to develop a broader knowledge of ASD, and explore how to engage these students. When I turned to the literature, research was limited. This influenced my career trajectory as I left education and earned a Master of Science in Exercise Science. I then proceed to follow my academic interests and contribute to the field of rehabilitation and ASD by pursuing a doctorate.

My experiences and education have also inspired me to establish and lead a community council program for disabled young people in Toronto. Supported by the City of Toronto Department of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, the program provides an opportunity for young people to participate in physical activity, arts, and social activities every Friday evening during the school year.


What change would you like your research to facilitate?

I plan to use my research as a platform to challenge assumptions in the bio-medical field that suggest young people diagnosed with ASD are predominantly inactive because they are unmotivated and are naturally drawn to sedentary activities. Secondly, I would like this research to serve as a vehicle to establish physical activity guidelines for young people diagnosed with ASD, since there are no guidelines currently in place. Finally, as I continue post-doctoral work in this area, I would like to work with families, policy makers, clinicians, and educators to establish policies and practices that would optimally facilitate physical activity participation for young people with ASD in both scholastic and community contexts.


What has been your experience thus far pursuing a PhD at University of Toronto?

My PhD supervisor Dr. Barbara Gibson is a genuinely engaged mentor who has supported my development as an aspiring scientist. She seamlessly combines leadership with a sense of humour and a fun spirit that inspires me to pursue my research with passion. U of T has encouraged me to take the road less traveled, research new areas that are still emerging, and think critically.


What are your future plans?

Following the completion of my doctorate, I plan to undertake post-doctoral training and one day become an independent scientist. During the post-doctoral training I plan to continue researching physical activity participation among individuals diagnosed with ASD, while carving out new research in the area of ASD and rehabilitation.