Sports are a huge part of many kids’ lives. Not only is it a social gathering for adolescents to meet friends and learn to be part of a team, it also encourages healthy active lifestyles, and as we know exercise is important for everyone – disability or not. Some parents might think that having a child with autism means playing sports may never be a reality for their child. However, sports can be just as beneficial, if not more, for children with autism.
While many team sports such as basketball or soccer may be a little bit more challenging to grasp due to gross motor coordination, sensory problems or communication issues, individual sports may be the perfect fit. Individual sports like swimming, track and field and karate provide structure and team camaraderie while at the same time being very individualized. This perfect mixture could be very beneficial in allowing the child to fully participate in the activity at their own level while not having the social anxiety that can be brought on from other involved team sports. In a basketball game there has to be that thought process of knowing when the ball is going to be passed to you or who to throw to next. A sport like swimming permits the child to focus in on one skill only helping to keep their attention and reducing that social anxiety that can be brought on in other team sports.
This team aspect, while helping them develop their motor skills, will also help them develop their social skills too by providing the feeling of being a valued member of a group and increasing self-confidence. Individualized sports also eliminate the fear that your child will be picked last for the team or “ride the bench” the whole game, creating a sense of failure and rejection in their heads and turning them away from the sport completely. While a child may come in last in a track race, putting the focus on just finishing the race and having their teammates cheer them on to the finish line can be a great self-esteem booster.
Another great aspect of individual sports is the ability to continue participating throughout one’s lifespan. Individuals with disabilities have a higher prevalence for obesity and one large contributor to that can be a sedentary lifestyle (although other factors are also influential). Encouraging fitness at a younger age will help to find fun inclusive ways to exercise that can be carried on into their adult years too.
The Arc’s programs such as HealthMeet and the Autism NOW Center are great places to turn to for valuable information and resources on fitness and healthy living for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. Autism NOW’s website contains printable handouts with dietary recommendations and tips that promote healthy eating habits as well as a Health Promotion Guide containing ideas and suggestions for developing and sustaining a healthy, active lifestyle for individuals with autism.