For many people, playing a sport is a way to keep healthy, to socialize with peers, and to have fun. As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, you may be interested in having your child play a sport, but you may have concerns about how your child’s autism-related symptoms may impact his or her ability to participate. Perhaps your child has motor coordination or attention issues that you worry may interfere, or maybe you are concerned that your child’s social difficulties will get in the way of having a positive experience with sports. While traditional team sports may not be appropriate for your child, there are other alternatives that can keep your child active and involved.
Traditional team sports, like soccer and basketball, often are difficult for individuals on the autism spectrum. In addition to physical dexterity, they require somewhat developed verbal and non-verbal communication skills. For example, soccer and basketball players communicate with one another during the game by verbally speaking with one another, “I’ve got this one,” or “I’m open.” Sometimes these same messages are communicated through hand gesture, eye glances, etc. Even young children on traditional sports teams seem to pick up on these unspoken cues and intuit what they’re supposed to be doing. However, these subtle communication skills can be difficult for an individual on the autism spectrum.
That’s not to say that children on the spectrum can’t participate successfully in traditional sports. Some do so quite successfully. Certainly, if your child has an interest in taking part in a traditional sports team, brainstorm how to support your child in this endeavor, whether it be pre-teaching rules and strategies, introducing your child to coaches and some players prior to the season, or finding a peer buddy on the team to help guide your child.
If you want your child to take part in group sports but are wary of traditional sports like soccer and basketball, it may be a good idea to start with a sports activity where each member of the team plays independently. Some examples are swimming, bowling, track, and tennis (singles). Karate and gymnastics are also individual sports that are often done as a group. These sports provide an excellent opportunity to stay fit, enjoy the collegiality of a team, and practice following rules. Your child may still need accommodations to take part, but the social communication demands may be less stressful than what your child might encounter playing on a traditional sports team.
You might also consider signing your child up for a team for children with disabilities. There are a number of “special” sports associations for children with disabilities, including Special Olympics, Tops Sports, and Challenger programs, to name only a few, and many Y programs and scouting groups offer specialized programs to those with special needs, including individuals on the autism spectrum. Additionally, a physical therapist may be able to work with your child to help him or her develop skills needed for sports, such as running, balancing, etc. Similarly, an occupational therapist can help your child learn how to interact with teammates.
As children get older, the skills needed to continue to play sports increase. Many teams have try-outs and “cut” players. If your child has developed a special interest in a particular sport but does not have the requisite skills to continue to play, there are many other opportunities for your child to stay connected, including as team manager, scorekeeper, or a sports writer for the school paper.
In the end, you want whatever activity you choose to be enjoyable for your child. Take the following factors into account when considering enrolling your child in a sport:
- What does your child enjoy? Does your child love animals? Then perhaps horseback riding would be enjoyable. Is your child more active? A physically demanding sport, like track, may be better than a lower energy sport like bowling.
- Does your child have sensory sensitivities? If your child is sensitive to loud, unpredictable sounds, a sport with seemingly unpredictable jolting whistles may not be ideal. Similarly, if your child has an aversion to the smell of fresh cut grass, baseball may not be a good fit.
- How coordinated is your child? Does he or she have the muscle tone to be able to do the sport? If your child has low tone, for example, make sure you make accommodations for this with the instructor or coach ahead of time. Your child will build strength and agility over time, but you don’t want your child to have a bad experience because he or she wasn’t physically ready for the sport at the beginning. Consult with a physical therapist if you have questions.
- Does your child hate to lose? If so, your child may not be ready to take part in a sport where there is a clear winner and loser. However, this doesn’t mean you should abandon competitive sports forever. Consider using a social story to help your child learn to be a good sport.
- Can your child follow instructions? If this is an area of difficulty for your child, your child may need accommodations to participate safely, such as having an assistant assigned to help.
Keep in mind that your child doesn’t need to be an Olympic athlete to take part in sports. Kids sports, particularly at a young age, are supposed to be fun, without an emphasis on competition and winning and losing. If you think your child may enjoy a sport, find a way for your child to feel supported and give it a try!
- The Role of the Pediatric Physical Therapist for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Occupational Therapy for Children with ASD
- Sensory Processing and Sensory Integration in Individuals with ASD