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Autism and Sport

February 23, 2023

Do autism and sport go together? It’s a question that I’m sure the parents of any children on the autism spectrum have asked themselves. It’s a question that my wife and I have definitely asked ourselves when it comes to our own children. But it’s not an easy question to answer, and can change depending on where your child falls on the spectrum.

Autism and Sport

Can people with autism be good at sports?

The simple answer is yes. Autistic kids can be good at sports, but which sports they’ll be good at is an entirely different question. Some kids may thrive at one sport and struggle with others. That’s true for anyone at any athletic ability but can be doubly true for those on the autism spectrum.

In my personal experience, I have watched and supported my son as he has pursued a wide variety of sports. He has attempted soccer, football, basketball, track and cross country to varying degrees of success. He gives his all for everything that he attempts to do but just because the effort is there doesn’t mean the execution is there. He tries. Sometimes he succeeds. Sometimes he fails. He is just like any typically developing child attempting sports. The only difference is he has an autism diagnosis.

What sports are autistic kids good at?

Many autistic children like to be alone which can make team sports very difficult. But there are several sports that allow for individual competition while incorporating a team aspect. According to verywellhealth.com, some of the best sports for autistic children include:

  • Swimming
  • Track and Field
  • Bowling

All three of these sports involve a way to individually succeed while helping the team.

Swimming

Swimming incorporates water play and basic strokes. Many kids on the spectrum, including one of my sons, thrive when playing in the water.

Track & Field

Most track and field events require very little interaction with others, although some relays do require four teammates on the track and a baton handoff.

Bowling

And, while bowling can be loud which can be a deterrent for some kids, many autistic kids could find the highly repetitive behaviors soothing and thrive in that area.

My oldest son has really come into his own as an athlete since he has been able to join the cross country teams. He joined a running club at school and has been better behaved and succeeded more academically whenever he has been able to go to practice or compete in meets. He loves to run the approximate two miles it takes for a meet. It taught him how to pace himself. And when he transitioned to track and field, he understood how to pace himself and still work as a long distance runner for those events as well.


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What sports are a poor match for autistic children?

There are exceptions to every rule but cooperative team sports can cause trouble for some autistic children. Football, baseball, basketball and soccer may lead to troubles because of three factors:

  • Coordination
  • Environment
  • Social skills

Coordination

Children with autism spectrum disorder often struggle with poor coordination, motor skills and lower muscle tone. They may require physical therapy or occupational therapy. This can make any sport that requires handling a ball or puck difficult.

Environment

Everyone knows that the environment can play a major role in anyone’s success. But, for autistic children, the environment can be extra hard. Many kids with autism spectrum disorder also have sensory issues. That means the cold from a hockey rink could cause an issue. The squeaky shoes on a basketball court can be too loud. The environment will affect autistic children more than it will neurotypical kids and that can lead to your child being unhappy.

Social skills

Team sports require advanced social skills and communication skills. That’s an area kids on the autism spectrum may be lacking in. Lacking those skills, or at least struggling with those skills, can make it difficult to fit into team sports related activities. In team sports, every member of the team must be able to communicate well with other team members. That may not be an option for some autistic children.

In my personal experience, these types of team sports were harder for my son to adapt to. He requires occupational therapy for weak gross motor skills. It definitely made ball handling harder when he tried football. His hand-eye coordination was also lacking. While he was okay at basketball, you could see how he was struggling there. He was better at soccer as his foot coordination has always been better than his hand coordination. But it was those attempts at soccer that helped us encourage him to try track and cross country.

Famous Athletes with Autism Spectrum Disorder

While autism can certainly make it more difficult for sports participation, it doesn’t rule it out completely. There are several athletes on the autism spectrum who have grown up to be very successful in their chosen sports. They may not have blown away team sports, but they still found where they best succeed.

These include:

  • Clay Marzo, swimmer
  • Tommy Des Brisay, runner
  • Jim Eisenreich, baseball player
  • Jessica-Jane Applegate, swimmer
  • David Campion, snowboarder

While Eisenreich is the only one to compete in team sports, he reached the top of the mountain. The baseball player won the World Series with the Florida Marlins in 1997. As demonstrated by the list, he is clearly an exception but is still an amazing example for autistic children to try to emulate.

Meanwhile the others in this list all compete in sports that are featured at the Olympics, as well as their own national competitions. They are team sports that allow for individual participation. Marzo won the National Scholastic Surfing Association National Championship and the NSSA Open Men’s National Championship. Des Brisay is a para-athlete that has been the focus of two documentaries First Fastest Runner and I See a Des Brisay Fly. Applegate has won multiple medals at the Paralympic Games. And Campion has competed at the Special Olympics.

Recap

Is sports participation something for your autistic children to pursue? That’s a question only your child can answer. But if they are wanting to participate, it is up to us as parents to help guide them to a sport that will help them succeed. There are many sports teams that have individual aspects that could help your child thrive.

Team sports may not be the answer for your child for a variety of reasons. But, as they say, if you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. Your child might thrive in team sports like Jim Eisenreich did with baseball. Or your child might not be coordinated and might prefer something a little more individual like my son does with running.

The important thing is to be there to support your child’s development. Let them try multiple sports, even if it’s one you don’t think they will succeed at. If one sport doesn’t work, let them try another. Let them try until they find the one that fits them best. Sports related activities can do wonders for autistic kids but only if they feel the support from those they are closest to.

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