This study evaluated the effect of a 12-week mini-basketball training program (MBTP) on social communication (SC) and the executive control network (ECN) in preschool children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). We finally assigned 30 preschool children with ASD to an experiment group (n = 15, 12 males, 3 females) or a control group (n = 15, 13 males, 2 females). The experiment group participated in a 12-week MBTP (40-min sessions per day, 5 days a week), while the control group only received the institutional routine behavioral rehabilitation intervention. The SC of preschool children with ASD was measured using the Social Responsiveness Scale, Second Edition (SRS-2), whereas functional connectivity (FC) of the ECN was assessed using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) at pre-and post-test. Our results showed that SC exhibited significant improvement in the intervention group, especially in SRS-2 total score, social cognition, and social communication. We found significantly enhanced functional connectivity between the right cerebellum and left inferior frontal gyrus in the experimental group, while functional connectivity between the left middle temporal gyrus and right cerebellum were decreased in the control group. Furthermore, there were no significant correlations between the change in SC scores and FC of the ECN. Altogether, this study provides valuable insights that a 12-week MBTP improves SC and functional connectivity of the ECN in preschool children with ASD. We further inferred that neural mechanisms might be associated with changing the ECN of preschool ASD children caused by the 12-week MBTP.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; executive control network; functional connectivity; mini-basketball; social communication.