Sports are a big part of many people’s lives. It’s a way to keep healthy, socialize with your peers, and generally have fun. As a parent, you know the importance of enrolling your child in sporting activities. It yields incredible benefits such as endurance, strength, and an overall healthy lifestyle.
Yet, for children with autism, sports can be a bit more challenging. The skills involved in sports do not come naturally for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For example, football involves social interaction and non-verbal communication, usually through hand gestures and eye glances. An autistic child won’t be able to read or pick up on these signs. While sports require communication and coordination, this doesn’t mean children with ASD should miss out.
Finding the right sport can be a chore since there are many aspects you should take into consideration. However, every parent’s dream is to see their child succeed—and there are many sports suitable for children on the spectrum.
Benefits of Sports
A child needs to get 60 minutes of physical activity. Sitting too much can be detrimental to their health and can lead to health problems like obesity. Obesity can lead to more severe illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and joint problems. By doing sports, it will be easier to maintain a healthier weight.
Exercise has shown to be beneficial for children with autism, and here’s why:
Reduces Autism Behavior
Children engaging in vigorous exercise for 20 minutes three days a week have shown a decrease in self-stimulatory behaviors, aggression, or hyperactivity. Keep in mind that this does not happen overnight, but you can see improvements over time.
Improves Social Skills
Since children with autism have a more challenging time engaging with peers, sports are a great way to get them out of their shells. They build social relationships with teammates, work together to accomplish goals, and get more confident.
Not paying attention is a symptom of autism. Sports can help them focus more since they listen to instructions and directions to accomplish goals. Your child will work together with his peers and improve his attention span.
Choosing a Sport
What’s the best sport for your autistic child? Well, the best one is the one your child enjoys and excels at. Always consider your child’s opinion. Allow him to try multiple sports for a while to see if something clicks with him. An autistic child has limited interests, and often you need to teach them leisure skills to raise interest in recreational activities.
At first, it might be difficult for your child to start exercising, but you should slowly introduce him to an activity he finds enjoyable. The environment should be comfortable and supportive; this would help set a routine. As you know, children on the spectrum thrive on routines, and it provides them comfort. Slowly implementing physical activities into their life will make the whole process easier and more enjoyable.
To help you, here are some questions you can ask yourself to see which sport is a good match for your child or not:
- What does my child enjoy? You know your kid best, so work with his interests. Does he like animals? Does he enjoy being near water?
- Does my child have sensory sensitivities? Many kids with autism experience sensory issues. Sports that expose your child to loud sounds or the smell of grass may not be ideal for him.
- Is my child coordinated? If your child does not have the muscle tone needed to do a particular sport, make sure to accommodate him with the coach's help. Your kid will build strength over time, but make sure it isn’t a bad experience.
- Is my child competitive? Does your kid hate to lose? Then he may not be ready for sports where there’s a winner and a loser. Teach him how to be a good sport through social stories if you want your child to play competitively.
- Can my child follow instructions? If your child struggles with following directions, he might need a period of accommodation to participate safely.
Think about these questions to determine what type of sport is right for your little bundle of joy. Each child is uniquely diagnosed and experiences symptoms differently. That's why they have unique interests and areas where they can excel.
To help you further, we’ll discuss the best and worst sports for your autistic child in the following paragraphs.
The Worst Team Sports for Children with Autism
Cooperative games such as soccer, basketball, football, or hockey may not be the best match for your autistic kid. They might be challenging for a kid with autism because it requires coordination and a high level of strength. The sport is often played in uncomfortable environments where it's hot/cold, loud, and very bright. It is also tough for your child to fit in if he has problems with communication.
The outcome is a miserable and uncooperative child. But don't worry; there are other opportunities. Many groups are eager to provide your autistic child the chance to be "just like everyone else."
The Best Team Sports
Luckily, not all sports require communication and cooperation. There are many options where your kid can be appreciated as a member of the team. Let’s take a look at the five best team sports for autistic children.
While being a fun activity for most people, it's also a life-saving skill. Autistic people tend to wander, and 32% are found near bodies of water. Swimming decreases the risk of drowning when unsupervised. Moreover, many autistic children adore water because of its buoyancy and giving them a sense of calm.
Being on the swim team is considered a therapeutic activity. It teaches children the repetitive motions of different strokes. It might seem frightening at first, but swimming allows children to compete and improve at their own pace. This sport also enhances coordination, social skills, cognitive skills and boosts their self-esteem.
Track and Field
Running and jumping over obstacles are great physical outlets. Your child might also enjoy this sport because there's less communication with other team members than other activities. Accomplishments are made at an individual level, and the performance contributes to the team's success as a whole. This "feature" gives the kid a sense that they are making a meaningful contribution to the team and are treated as valued members.
Running gives the best full-body workout and combats obesity. It's the perfect outlet for burning off tension and energy, contributing to decreased self-stimulatory behavior and aggression.
Bowling is loud. There is a lot of shouting going on whenever someone strikes, so you might think this is not a good option for kids with autism. You'd be surprised to find out that it's a natural sport for many ASD children. This sport doesn't require much communication, but individual practice can bring success to the entire team. Autistic kids are attracted to this sport because it's repetitive and rewarding to watch the pins fall.
Fortunately, bowling leagues welcome autistic individuals, so if your child is not ready to commit to a team sport, this might be the right pick. Children will learn the importance of patience but also improve social, coordination, and behavioral skills.
The Best Individual Sports
Skiing, surfing, sailing—these are all great non-team sports perfect for children with ASD. Plus, families can also join them. Here are some popular options for people on the spectrum.
Ok, horseback riding is pricey. But putting that aside, it's an excellent sport for children with autism. Why? Because it's a therapeutic activity since the child works directly with an animal. There is no secret that kids with autism are closer to animals, and they communicate better. Animals don't judge.
It’s not unusual for autistic children to excel at horsemanship. The horse, trained for this, calms the rider and encourages them to focus on every moment and movement. Furthermore, the child cares for the horse and connects with the animal.
Balance may not come naturally to some kids with autism. You can use training wheels for this problem. But once basic skills are mastered, cycling is the best way to enjoy the outdoors. Cycling can be enjoyed either alone or with family (a group).
Biking provides many benefits for children of all levels and abilities. It teaches children balance, independence, and stamina. Of course, learning to ride a bike can be stressful, but there are plenty of resources that can make it a little easier. Additionally, it provides excellent mental benefits, such as the value of determination and the power of independent success.
Be aware: this sport is not recommended for children that cannot self-control or are aggressive. Martial arts teaches peace and discipline while giving an outlet for physical stress in a safe space. The repetitive movements are a great way to keep the child healthy in body and mind.
Martial arts combat stress and anxiety, encourage calm, and help the child become more respectful of his peers. It's a good way to build self-esteem and develop incredible mental and physical skills, such as balance and how to fall without getting hurt. Martial arts lets you build skills individually so that the child can go at his own pace.
Believe in Your Child
Sports are about fun. Many parents of children put pressure on their offspring and emphasize winning or losing. Always give your support and let your child give a sport a try.
PS: You can even try yoga for stress and anxiety.