Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Getting Kids with Autism Into the Game
Sports and Autism

by Carrie Bishop

May 01, 2011

Are sports a good idea for kids with autism? Put it this way: are sports a good idea for any young person? It really depends on the kid. That’s according to Georgia Frey, associate professor in the department of Kinesiology at Indiana University.

It’s her estimation that some kids with autism are better suited for sports than others. In general, however, she believes individual and dual activities often suit kids on the autism spectrum better than large group sports that require interpretation of social cues. Again, she said this line of thinking does not apply to all kids with autism since every child with autism is unique.

Frey runs a program for kids with special needs that serves as a lab for her undergraduate students and shows first hand that some kids really do enjoy competition within activities like racing against the instructor, while others simply don’t.

“I think that’s a normal kind of distribution. Some are competitors and some just want to be active and move,” she said. And so it goes for typically developing kids as well.

Kim Davis, autism educational consultant with the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, agrees that every child with autism is different so it’s impossible to generalize if sports are a good fit for all kids on the autism spectrum. It is her experience that some kids with autism are able to handle the competitive nature of sports, while others may not. For instance, many people with Asperger syndrome are perfectionists by nature and may have a harder time with competitive sports, especially for those lacking the support of a really good coach and good teammates.

“I love sports and I love athletics for kids in general. My bigger concern is not the game or sport itself, but how the kids are supported. Anyone who is coaching has to have insight into kids and has to have insight into the disability and be able to do on-the-spot assessments and adapt as needed,” Davis said.

Sound advice.

Taking a broader perspective on sports, both Frey and Davis believe that finding a physical outlet is important for everyone.

“Getting exercise is good for anybody,” said Davis. She said kids on the autism spectrum don’t innately know what to do with free time or unstructured time and recognize that athletic activity may push them out of their comfort zones. “It’s an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to learn, and an opportunity to be seen as more part of the mainstream community,” she said.

Davis speaks of one gentleman with autism who likes to walk, so he joined the Audubon Society. “He is doing something he likes and is good at doing. He’s meeting others who don’t have disabilities, so they are getting to know him. They see him as more competent and he feels good about himself,” she said.

Parents who are interested in involving their child with autism in an athletic activity should focus on finding something the child enjoys and will enjoy doing throughout their lifetime. Understand that sports can add a new dimension from which the child will view the world and connect with people.

When determining the type of physical activity in which to get involved, Frey believes it’s important for parents to know their child and avoid asserting onto them a sport that they as parents would like to do.

“I’ve seen parents really want their kid to play soccer because that’s what they would like to do. Soccer involves a lot of activity and social cues and may not be good for every kid,” she said. Parents need to take into account any sensory issues their child may have and determine what sports would be a good fit versus those that are not a great fit.

Once parents identify the types of activities in which their child is interested in and best suited for, let them watch it, discuss it with them, and then allow them to do the activity or sport. Throughout the process parents should be patient and let their child get used to the sport. Understand that they will need to be taught the rules and skills more methodically than their typically developing peers, so patience is key when building up whatever the skill may be.

Davis acknowledges from personal experience in working with kids on the autism spectrum that it can be tough to get them motivated and engaged in the sport.

“Patience is key, but exposure and encouragement are really important too. With any kid with a disability, particularly kids with autism, you have to be happy with small steps and you cannot expect to change the world rapidly,” she said.

She advises parents and coaches to talk with the child about what they can expect from that day’s practice or workout. Let the child know the schedule; that they will kick the soccer ball around for 10 minutes or that they will shoot 15 baskets. It’s often important that the child know there is an ending point to the activity and when that ending point is. Then honor that limit.

In addition, Davis said, “Focus on the physical aspect not the competition. That’s my bias.”

She feels it must be emphasized that winning is gravy. Kids have to have fun and enjoy what they are doing. If they are too stressed because of the competition, it’s not worth it. A better angle may be to compete with oneself. Hit more free throws, do more sit ups. She said competition against others may not jive with their ability to think about winning and losing. “That’s a concept for them that can be upsetting,” Davis said.

Numerous organizations around greater Indianapolis offer athletic programming for kids on the autism spectrum. This summer parents may find good activities through the YMCA, Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation, Easter Seals Crossroads, Stony Creek Swim Center, and DeVeau’s School of Gymnastics, to name a few. Less organized options like area swimming pools, parks or even wading pools or shooting hoops at home can also be great and affordable ways to introduce a child with autism to the wide world of sports.