The benefits of competitive sports are accessible to all children, even those on the autism spectrum. If your child shows an interest in sports, that’s great! There are many benefits to participating, including healthy exercise and learning important life skills like cooperation, teamwork, overcoming obstacles, and the rewards of hard work, among others. Parents may be apprehensive about signing up their autistic child for a particular sport, but with the right amount of support, these activities can turn into wonderful opportunities for social and emotional development. This article helps parents identify and address potential obstacles to sports success so they can advocate for their child’s needs in the sports environment.
Challenges Autistic Children Face When Playing Sports
Autistic individuals tend to have a more difficult time enjoying and succeeding in sports than their neurotypical peers for a variety of reasons. This is usually the result of many environmental, structural, and physiological challenges and/or a lack of cooperation with coaches who aren’t accommodating for their specific needs in these areas. Some of these reasons are issues that can (and should) be remedied if a child shows an interest in participating. Below is a list of some of these potential challenges:
- Sensory issues related to noise, lighting, touch, or smell
- Difficulty socializing or working together as a team
- Plenty of distractions, resulting in an inability to focus
- The need for sameness, structure in a somewhat unpredictable environment
- The tendency for sports to rely on verbal coaching and instructions when the child may not be an auditory learner
- Physical stressors, such as bodies touching (intentionally or unintentionally)
- Difficulty with coordination and gross motor skills
- Difficulty communicating needs in ways coaches or players can understand
- Difficulty with abstract concepts such as offense or defense
- Frustration and meltdowns due to a coach or teammate’s inability to identify high levels of stress
Parents can help their children succeed at athletics by trying to create a supportive environment and teaching their children how to self-manage different issues that may arise in a particular sport.
How to Advocate for Your Athletic Autistic Child
Like many situations in life, early and ongoing communication can help ensure success. Your child’s instructor/coach will not be familiar with the particular needs of your child or their communication style. Prepare for a sport just like you would for a new school year–ensure the right support system is in place. Here are some specific ways you can advocate for your autistic child in a sport:
- Address issues of noise– Try to predict the types of noise that will be common (shouting from the crowd, the bouncing of a ball, the shouts of rowdy children, the alarm of a buzzer, etc.) Decide how much of this can be controlled and how much your child can tolerate.
- Determine environmental issues– Will the sport be played outside near busy streets? Is there a possibility your child could walk to an unsafe area before an adult caught them? Some children may be intimidated by large spaces without clear boundaries. Assess the area where your child will be participating and try to spend time there before the activity is supposed to take place.
- Communicate triggers– Let the coach or leader know what your child’s stress triggers are. Also, communicate signs that your child might be stressed or agitated and how to deescalate the situation. This will help both you and your child feel more comfortable.
- Ask about accommodations– Talk to the coach about how the game could be adapted to meet the needs of your child. Ask how they might be able to incorporate visual supports during instruction.
- Ask for help with transitions– Tell the coach if your child needs advance notice about changes or transitions during the activity.
- Don’t coach from the sidelines– Support the coach when needed, but try to offer tips before games so that the coach or instructor is well-equipped to manage the games and you don’t feel like you have to swoop in and micromanage the activity.
- Don’t overdo praise– Offer appropriate praise when your child has accomplished something (and ask the coach to do so as well). Pity praise isn’t helpful, and lowering expectations isn’t the answer to helping autistic athletes achieve.
Good Sports for People on the Spectrum to Try
Individuals on the spectrum shouldn’t be limited to only a certain subset of sports; however, if you have been having difficulty finding a sport your child enjoys, consider the ones below that other families have found success with:
- Swimming– You compete individually, but are still a member of a team. It doesn’t require ball handling, taking advantage of a different set of coordination skills.
- Horseback Riding– Some children bond with horses and enjoy many therapeutic benefits as well as learning how to work hard and compete.
- Track and Field– You can compete individually, but are still a valuable member of the team. The sport offers a variety of different events and skills to try out.
- Bowling– This is a repetitive sport that is very structured and you can compete individually or on a team.
- Martial Arts– This has elements of predictability and very structured peer interactions, with clear markers for advancement.
Remember the most important benefits your child will receive from playing a sport don’t have much to do with the skill of the sport. This includes learning how to win and lose with grace, communicate with a team, try hard, and work around obstacles. Don’t get wrapped up in your child’s skill level at a particular sport, rather, try to ensure they are learning these important life skills and having fun!
Next week we’ll explore this topic in depth with the professional advice of sports psychologist Carrie Hastings who specializes in helping coaches accommodate for athletes on the spectrum.
Additional Reading About Autism and Sports