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Sports and Autism: Thinking Outside the Bounds

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Sports and Autism:

Thinking Outside the Bounds

By Lisa Jo Rudy

Autism Asperger’s Digest | July/August 2009


Like many moms with kids on the autism spectrum, I learned about many of my son’s limitations the hard way. Tom never regressed, and he was always verbal – so it never really occurred to me that he was “different” until I took him to Gymboree when he was a toddler. Sure, he loved the slides and ladders. But circle time was an immediate disaster. Instead of happily joining in with the leader’s finger play and dances, he bolted. And so we were doomed to circle the happy mom-and-child pairs, as Tom climbed and slid on equipment that was now his alone.

Years later, intent that my child who was now diagnosed with PDD-NOS should be included in typical activities, I enrolled Tom in a “special” soccer league. There, a coach worked with a group of kids with high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome and their siblings. My daughter, then 6 and typically functioning, had a marvelous time with the big kids – few of whom could keep up with her as she signaled her plans to pass the ball, or cheered as the ball went into the goal. Meanwhile, Tom wandered around the field, exploring puddles.

Today, at age 12, Tom is a successful member of a candlepin bowling league (a sport found only inNew England), and his team won first place last year. He’s a strong swimmer and hiker. He’s enjoyed riding horses. He’s learning to play tennis. He enjoys shooting baskets. He’s even developed an interest in rock climbing.

What made the difference? Of course, maturity helps a great deal, and most kids with autism do develop more and more physical, emotional and social skills. But far more important was our realization that the world of sports and physical activity is much bigger than Gymboree or soccer. And trying to involve our son with autism (or really any child) in the wrong sport was simply a bad idea.

Soccer: What’s the Fuss All About?

In theUnited   States, virtually every child older than three (and some even younger) is learning to play soccer. This is very odd, since few native-born Americans even bother to watch the world soccer championships – and very few adults even play the game.

What makes it even stranger is that soccer is a very complex game. It requires a whole slew of skills that are beyond the ability of most children under the age of 9 or 10. Sure, the average 3-year-old can kick. But can he actually keep his attention on two sets of players and manage his movements such that he is available to receive a pass from a team mate and move the ball down the field – understanding the complex rules governing off-sides, fouls, and use of hands?

As any parent of a child in peewee soccer will tell you, the answer is no.

And of course, as every American family knows, soccer is king. Soccer isn’t just an activity – like dance class, or tumbling. It’s a major element of middle class American life – for children and parents alike. More athletic children cover their families in glory. Mothers build their friendships around soccer-related carpools and social events. Fathers build their relationships with their children around coaching, cheering, and practicing soccer skills.

What does all this have to do with autism? Children with autism have challenges in the areas of physical coordination, social communication, verbal understanding, and the ability to read non-verbal cues that make the game of soccer about as tough as any activity could possibly be. But soccer is king – and families are anxious to see their children – and themselves – included in the “soccer club.”

Far too often, as a result, kids with autism are “included” in soccer – standing uncertainly in the middle of a field or wandering aimlessly while typical peers race around kicking, cheering, and scoring. For the child with autism, at best, the experience is neutral – neither pleasant nor unpleasant. At worst, the experience can be humiliating, upsetting or confusing. For the parent of the child with autism, the outcomes are no better. And while it’s possible for a child with autism to enter a “special” soccer club, the outcomes aren’t much better because, quite simply, soccer is an absolutely lousy choice of sport for kids with autism.

Beyond Soccer

Actually, while soccer may – for uncertain reasons – be king among the elementary school set, there are many, many other sports that are just as significant, just as well respected, and just as physically challenging as soccer. What makes these sports a better choice (depending upon the child) is that they build on the interests and abilities of the child, build self-confidence, fitness and coordination – but require far fewer social and communication skills. As a result, kids with autism not only succeed, but can even excel.

How do you choose a sport for a child with autism? To begin with, assume that large-team sports, such as soccer, baseball, lacrosse, field hockey or football are unlikely to be ideal choices. In all of these sports, the demands for social communication, predicting movement, and managing noise, smells and dirt are almost certainly too high. Instead, focus your attention on individual sports or on sports in which individual efforts are prized over team interaction.

Next, consider –

q       What does your child really enjoy? If your child loves the water, swimming might be a great option. If your child is an animal lover, horseback riding could be a good choice (though stable smells may be overwhelming).

q       Is your child high or low energy? This varies tremendously within the autism spectrum. If your child is high energy, consider track and field (running, jumping) – or physically demanding sports such as rock climbing (available at many YMCAs and in rock gyms across theUS). If your child is low energy, he might prefer bowling, hiking, or fishing.

q       Does your child have good or poor physical coordination and muscle tone? Most children with autism have relatively poor physical coordination and muscle tone, but that can improve over time with the right choice of sport. Swimming, dancing, hiking, horseback riding, tumbling, martial arts and biking are all sports that can start out very gently – allowing the individual child to build skills, strength, flexibility and coordination over time.

q       Does your child hate to lose? If so, a sport that involves competition is likely to become frustrating. But there are plenty of activities that require no competition at all. Hiking, biking, yoga, dance, tumbling, fishing, golfing…  it’s amazing how few sports really require kids to compete on a team!

q       Is your child ready for inclusion in a small group? If so, some sports lend themselves to the “not quite ready for primetime” child with autism. Martial arts are fast becoming popular among kids on the spectrum, possibly because the interactions are formalized and predictable, and the competitions are one-to-one.  A more advanced youngster with autism might also find fencing or wrestling to be interesting for the same reasons.

q       Is your child with autism interested in individual sports on a team level? Swimming, archery, track and field, bowling, fencing, wrestling, cycling, sailing and many other sports allow children to be on and part of a team – without the need to read others’ non-verbal or verbal cues.

Should you look into Special Olympics, Easter Seals, or Challenger League options? Of course; each child with autism is different. But our family has found that “special” sports clubs may not be necessary for the right activity. Tom could never have succeeded in a typical soccer league. But he’s right up there with his typical peers in swimming, bowling, hiking and more.

Think Outside the Bounds to Find the Right Support for Your Child

While some of the sports listed above may seem esoteric, you may be surprised to learn that most are offered at YMCA’s, rec centers, camps and clubs in communities large and small. What’s even more surprising to some parents is the ability their children have to take on physical challenges – once the added stress of social and communication demands are removed.

Rock climbing is a case in point. Many towns offer rock climbing through the schools, rec centers, Y’s, JCC’s and other sports-oriented resources. Who would imagine their child with autism choosing such a sport? But consider:

q       Rock climbing is an individual sport – no team engagement required.

q       Rock climbing is intuitive. You climb the wall. No complex rules of engagement required.

q       Rock climbers climb in a harness, and a belayer supports them with a rope. The sensation of the harness, for many youngsters, is akin to a weighted vest.

q       Because the belayer is able to help the child climb (by pulling them up past a frustrating spot, for example), the child can be successful the first time.

q       Succeeding in climbing a rock wall is a big deal – for any kid. Many typical kids can’t manage it. Yet I’ve watched more than one child with autism fearlessly scale several stories. Imagine the pride your child – and you – would feel after a successful climb!

Of course, not every family has access to a rock gym – and not every child with autism will enjoy or be good at rock climbing. But every family has access to a wide range of sports options. And almost every child with autism will find that some sport – swimming, running, hiking, throwing, dancing, karate – will work for him.

The bottom line: when it comes to autism and sports, think outside the bounds!


Lisa Jo Rudy is the About.com Guide to Autism (www.autism.about.com) and the mother of a 12-year-old on the autism spectrum. Learn more about Lisa at her webiste, www.lisajorudy.com.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2009. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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