Due to the various challenges children and teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face, engaging in physical activities such as sports can be intimidating. From sensory concerns to coordination deficiencies, autism hinders many aspects of sports, limiting one’s choice to do something fun. However, there are many sports for kids with autism that not only avoid these challenges but offer a reliable way to develop essential skills.
At ABA Centers of America, we strongly emphasize play therapy and physical exercise in our ABA therapy services for children and teens on the spectrum. Kids with ASD should never feel burdened or inadequate when trying something they might enjoy. To ensure your child has options when staying physically active, we’ve compiled a list of the best sports for kids with autism and why they work well for autism-related challenges.
What Are the Benefits of Sports and Play in Autism?
Engaging in sports offers numerous advantages for children with autism, extending well beyond physical fitness. A notable benefit is enhanced self-esteem and confidence. As they progress and achieve their goals, children with autism often experience a profound sense of pride and accomplishment, which can be especially significant given potential challenges with social interaction.
Sports also provide a platform for forging new friendships and honing social skills. Children learn essential lessons about teamwork, cooperation, and effective communication through collaborative efforts toward shared objectives.
Additionally, sports contribute to developing crucial life skills like time management, responsibility, and perseverance, which hold value in the athletic arena and various aspects of their lives.
Why Are Some Sports Challenging for Kids on the Spectrum?
While not all sports for kids with autism present the same challenges for individuals on the spectrum, five primary factors can hinder a child’s ability to engage in these activities, including:
- Social Communication – Many sports require intensive social conversation between players before, during, and after the game. Constant communication is necessary for team sports like soccer and basketball, so children with social complications may struggle to fit into a team, communicate during critical moments, and receive cues from teammates.
- Coordination – Individuals with ASD commonly struggle with coordination and gross motor skills. As such, many sports like hockey, baseball, and volleyball may not be desirable as they require extensive hand-eye coordination skills, making many facets of the games extremely challenging.
- Sensory Concerns – The environment significantly affects how certain sports operate, with indoor and outdoor venues presenting unique sensory challenges. Since individuals with ASD experience sensitivities to loud sounds, bright lights, and varying temperatures, many sports settings can jeopardize their comfort and contribute to challenging behaviors such as meltdowns. For instance, playing hockey in a cold rink or soccer on a scorching field can each warrant sensory concerns.
- Physical Build – Children and teens with autism may have lower muscle tone, making contact sports like football or rugby much more complicated to play confidently, even on a recreational or little league level.
- Stress and Anxiety – In cases where a sport requires a tryout, individuals on the spectrum may suffer from increased anxiety that can jeopardize their ability to perform. This stress can also translate to competitive matches, tournaments, and other intense settings where nerves can prevent progress and prowess.
Of course, many of these challenges are generalized and don’t pertain to each individual on the spectrum. It’s essential for parents and caregivers to clearly understand their loved one’s unique skills and weaknesses, as many children with ASD may shine in some or all of these sports.
Good Team Sports for Kids With Autism
Even though many team sports require hefty communication, some offer an individualized experience while contributing to a group effort. Some of these sports include:
- Bowling – Adhering to repetition is a fundamental skill for children with autism, making bowling a desirable sport for many. Additionally, bowling frequently occurs in special events, clubs, leagues, and other settings where these individuals can develop social skills, make friends, and strike big on the lanes.
- Track and Field – Running and endurance training are quintessential components of a healthy and active lifestyle, so track and field is perfect for kids on the spectrum. While some events like relays offer a team component, many track and field events cater to individual moments, like beating personal records or shooting for a target score on a long jump attempt.
- Gymnastics – Like track and field, gymnastics offers an individual experience while contributing to a larger team. It also provides a structured environment to help with sensory issues. Further, gymnastics is exceptional for developing balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength. Plus, foam pits are SUPER fun no matter how old you are or what challenges you face.
Good Individual Sports for Kids With Autism
The social aspect of sports can be something to seek out for your child, but many individual sports can offer those same benefits while focusing on personal growth rather than competition. Here are some outstanding individual activities for kids with autism:
- Martial Arts – Taekwondo, karate, judo, and other martial arts perfectly exemplify this concept of individual activity while being part of a larger group. Children and teens can develop fundamental skills in coordination and physical technique while still learning and training alongside others also interested in the activity; this allows them to make friends and attend group events while keeping the competitive aspect to themselves.
- Swimming – Swimming is another excellent example of individual activity while contributing to a larger core. It’s also ideal for children with ASD since it’s low impact, helps with sensory issues, and provides a calming sensation on the skin. Plus, it’s an outstanding way to develop physical strength and endurance while improving coordination and balance.
- Biking – Cycling is a low-impact sport that can provide a sense of independence for those on the spectrum. It also helps with sensory issues, coordination, endurance, and balance. Going on a nice scenic bike ride can bring tranquility and peace, especially on designated paths away from busy roads.
Sports Leagues and Programs to Consider
ABA Centers of America has compiled a list of some super cool recreational sports leagues catering to children with developmental disabilities and special needs. Here are some we love:
- Greater Massachusetts Special Needs Events – For families in Worcester, Braintree, Wellesley Hills, and other areas in Massachusetts, this resource offers various recreation programs and events such as sports leagues, tournaments, and general fitness.
- Bowlero Lanes & Lounge – Bowlero, a popular bowling company with locations scattered throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the United States, became a Certified Autism Center (CAC) in 2019. Now, they frequently host special hours and dedicate time for family bowling and young adult leagues to help individuals with sensory challenges.
- Granite State Adaptive Sports – This organization provides opportunities for adaptive sports in New Hampshire, including equine, cycling, and snow. Not only are these great ways to stay active, but they also have a vital social aspect to them with group meetups and excursions.
ABA Therapy Can Open New Doors for Sports
ABA Centers of America offers comprehensive ABA therapy services to children and teens on the autism spectrum. Our BCBAs, RBTs, and other autism experts work with you and your loved one to develop tailored treatment plans that cater to their unique needs and skill sets. If autism-related challenges are holding your child back from playing a sport they enjoy, our ABA services can help.
Call (844) 923-4222 or fill out the contact form on our site for a free consultation.