Sports for Children with Autism

There was a good article in the Washington Post yesterday about a boy with autism who swims on a local swim team.  Kids with autism can benefit a lot from playing sports, as can their neurotypical peers from having them on the teams.  Swimming is one of the better sports for kids with autism because it is both individual, without a lot of complex requirements, yet still social in that kids are still part of a team.

Participating in sports can help kids with autism and other disabilities in many ways.  Sports give kids with disabilities confidence, improve socialization, get more oxygen to the brain, improve coordination, help them stay in shape, help them sleep better, improve cognitive function by improving proprioception (the body’s sense of where it is in space), and reduce inappropriate behaviors.  Improvements in fine and gross motor skills often go hand in hand with improvements in academic and cognitive function.  Certain exercises can relax kids and even help align both hemispheres of the brain.  And of course, sports are also a lot of fun.

Kids with autism often like swimming, trampoline, and swinging.  This gives us clues on what kind of sensory input they need.  What is the best sport for children with autism?  I tried to answer the question a couple of years ago at http://www.coachmike.net/autism-faq.php#12.  I think the real answer is, “Whatever they like best.”  In order to find out whatever they like best, we need to get rid of our preconceived notions and expose them to as many athletic opportunities as possible.  I learned this after coaching a child in soccer a few years ago who ultimately ended up playing hockey.  I never would have thought hockey would be a great sport for kids with autism because of the need to skate and handle a stick simultaneously, but it turns out that it can be great, and it just goes to show that we shouldn’t put limitations on anyone.

Sports can be more effective for kids with disabilities when they are mixed in with academics and social skills.  You can do a half hour of sports followed by a half hour of schoolwork, followed by a half hour of social skills.  Each area helps the child generalize and build on the previous one. Sometimes people make the mistake, though well intentioned, of segregating each activity to the point where each one is facilitated by different specialists who, worst-case scenario, don’t coordinate and communicate with each other.  In any case, each activity should transition and relate to the others, and ideally, you can do some academic work while moving at the same time.  One example is to play catch or jump on a trampoline while answering questions.  This helps with sensory integration.  Yoga is also great for balance and relaxation, and deep breathing and meditation exercises can help improve the attention spans of children and reduce unwanted behaviors at the same time.

For a high functioning child, you can have him or her play in a league with typical peers, preferably a couple of years younger than the child who has autism.  The child has a “shadow” who helps integrate him or her with the other children athletically and socially.  I’ve facilitated in this way, and also coached Special Olympics soccer, and both can be great depending on the situation.  See www.soccerideas.net for ideas on drills.  It’s the same concept as in school – sometimes it’s best for kids to be mainstreamed into the typical school environment, and other times it’s best for them to be in a self-contained (special education) classroom, and often the best of both worlds is a combination of both, depending on the situation.

Exercises are great, but it’s best to do ones that are meaningful in the context of sports, so that children can eventually be part of a team, or at least play in impromptu games after school, or even use imagination to make up their own games.  It’s how kids learn best – not just sitting at a desk doing work, but getting along with others, being spontaneous, thinking on the fly.

A lot of people are familiar with the amazing story of Jason McElwain, an autistic teenager who scored 6 three-point baskets for his high school team a few years ago.  This type of success doesn’t happen a lot, but it would never happen if too many limitations are put on children who have autism and other disabilities who want to play sports.

I’d like to add one other thing.  While parents shouldn’t push their kids too hard into sports, they should expose them to sports and in some cases kids may need a nudge.  You wouldn’t tell your child who says, “I don’t want to do math” that it’s ok to avoid homework just because he or she doesn’t want to do it.  Math is necessary and good for kids.  Sports may be good for them as well, so don’t be so quick to say, “He doesn’t want to do it.”  In any case, it’s better to try something new that to do the same things over and over.  Sometimes I think parents are more autistic than the kids themselves – not willing to try anything new, just doing the same old x number of hours of therapy sitting at a desk in a vacuum.  And playing sports is certainly better than sitting inside and watching TV.

Ok, that reminds me, I have one other thing to add.  Today, a lot of kids play video games, and one video game that can be beneficial is the Nintendo Wii, which has simulated sports that can create an interest in real sports (tennis, bowling, baseball), as well as fitness (yoga, exercises, and running).

For people in the Bethesda/Montgomery County, MD/Washington, DC areas, there are several sports-related opportunities for children with autism.

  • Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN, www.keenusa.org) is a free, volunteer-run sports program for kids with disabilities.  There is a waiting list that was up to a year long the last time I checked, but they don’t turn anyone away unless they are over 21.  KEEN has a general sports program, a swim program, a music program, and a Teen Club for higher functioning children to do outings.  KEEN has chapters in Bethesda, Washington, DC, and several more across the country, and even a few in England, where KEEN began.
  • Sports Plus, based in Germantown, MD, has sports leagues for kids with high functioning autism (www.playsportsplus.org).
  • Fitness for Health in Rockville has some excellent equipment and specializes in one on one training sessions.  See http://www.fitnessforhealth.org/.
  • Special Olympics provides sports for not only children but also adults with disabilities: http://www.somdmontgomery.org/.  The Special Olympics national website is http://www.specialolympics.org/.
  • There are a few youth hockey programs in the area such as the Montgomery Cheetahs (www.montgomerycheetahs.org).

Elsewhere, check with your local schools and governments, or search the web to see what is out there.

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