Not content with the limited therapies available to her autistic brother, exceptional University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) academic Natalia Neophytou began generating new tools to prove that exercise intervention can improve some of the core symptoms of the disorder.
Neophytou (27) has a master’s degree in exercise science from Wits, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Autism Spectrum Disorder. She not only works as a lecturer at the university’s Centre for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, but also runs her own biokinetics private practice. Although Neophytou began her academic career working with elite sportspeople — as an undergrad she published three papers in respected peer-reviewed journals — her master’s thesis saw her return to her passion. Her thesis, “The efficacy of a 12-week exercise intervention in adolescents aged 11-16 years with Autism Spectrum Disorder”, set the groundwork for her PhD.
“After growing up helping my 26-year-old autistic brother Alexander, I am deeply passionate about autism, especially using exercise to try and improve physical activity profiles. I’ve also developed lectures based on my own and others’ research on autism and exercise, and incorporated these into the honours course, where students learn about autism and how to provide exercise instruction and develop targeted exercise programmes,” she says. As part of the master’s block, Neophytou has organised for students to work with autistic children at a special needs school in Johannesburg, assessing them and implementing a preset exercise programme. She has completed three papers on exercise and autism, with four more in the pipeline. Ultimately, Neophytou wants to develop a comprehensive short course/workshop in the specialist field of autism and exercise.
“The need for increased awareness and intervention becomes clear from the statistics. In 2010 in South Africa, autism was prevalent in one in 88 children, but by 2016 that figure had grown to one in 48 children. It’s also been reported that about 135 000 South African children with autism are not getting the treatment they need,” she adds. Neophytou is also the South African representative on the international board of Magic Always Happens, a non-profit organisation focused on autism research. She is an avid artist, and is currently developing colouring-in/activity books for people with autism.
— Di Caelers