Monday, April 12, 2010

Autism & Sports

We are all exceedingly aware of the benefits of exercise, team play, and accomplishment. For many parents, getting their sons and daughters involved in sports like soccer, basketball, or baseball is a given. This is an environment where our kids can grow physically and mentally stronger, learn good sportsmanship, stay healthy, learn what it means to work as a team, acquire additional social skills, and experience the thrill of achievement as well as how to yield graciously.

But for children with autism, these arenas can be more frustrating than anything. The sources of irritation include a unique sense of justice, underdeveloped gross motor skills, distractions, social awkwardness, and a perfectionist attitude. I will discuss each of these irritations and then suggest some options better suited to a child with autism.

The person with autism has a heightened sense of justice and equity and a dislike of prejudice. This can lead to problems where an opponent or teammate is shown some leeway in getting on base or not given a penalty. A child with autism lives a life being rather rigid with rules and expects others to follow this example, too. In the sports and activities realm for children, it is common to nurture an environment to promote success… we all want our kids to be winners. This is hard for the child with autism to experience because of their need to abide by the rules. It’s also common that these rule-driven children will add their own rules for any number of reason. My son, Jake, not only added rules to chess as he and I were learning to play together, he actually invented a cross between chess and checkers including several checkers pieces into the chess set. His goal was to make the overall game more intense and challenging… he succeeded, as I got my butt whooped several times.

This sense of justice is also a great quality as you see your child surrender his own resources or opportunities to help another succeed. I have seen Jake all but forget about a game to help another child succeed or at least have a fair shot. In addition, this ability can be further used to help a child with autism practice social graces and, in this case, sportsmanship. ‘Scripting’ is a very frequently used technique for people with autism to behave more like their neurotypical peers. If a child with autism sees sportsmanship as an additional set of rules to abide by, he will practice good sportsmanship more readily.

A child with autism frequently has a clumsy quality in regard to his gross motor skills. Gross motor skills include walking, sitting upright, kicking, lifting, and throwing a ball. The grace found in professional athletes in running a football through a defensive line avoiding tackles, the elegance of dancing, or the effortless stride of a runner is more difficult for a child with autism to master. They have trouble with proprioception (sensation of body position) which causes this clumsiness. A child in the autism spectrum should be expected to continue to develop their gross motor skills, but in the venue of a sports activity, their awkwardness can become a frustration and hindrance to their enjoyment of the sport.

While, indeed, having narrow and intense obsessions, a child with autism finds it very difficult to stay focused. The ball field with spectators, flowers, passing cars, and clouds is a battlefield for focus. These are just too interesting for the child not to be distracted. It is common, for instance, for a child with autism to stand on a soccer field observing the world around him while his teammates and opponents run circles around him. In my own opinion, this wouldn't be a good investment because, while they may get a trophy for participation (autistic children love awards), they have not been significantly engaged.

The elusion of social graces for kids with autism can be both frustrating and hilarious. The way the autistic mind works, lying, pretension, bluffing, and niceties are often replaced with brutal honesty. Hearts are not only worn on sleeves, you may become intimately acquainted with them. The answer to your question of, “do these pants make my butt look fat?” just might be, “no, your butt makes your butt look fat.” In sports, this may be manifested in making others feel bad, crossing lines of comfortableness, withdrawing, becoming a distraction to others, or overreacting to a benign event.

Ah, the perfectionist outlook. Because people with autism generally have just a few interests which are also intense obsessions, they tend to become an authority in that area. When they undertake an activity, people with autism experience a desire to be exceedingly proficient at it, otherwise it is not a worthwhile investment. A child may have the desire to play baseball with his or her friends in an organized league. Intellectually, it's simple to hit a ball and get on base and maybe enjoy increased acceptance in neurotypical circles. But the autistic child may quickly find that their physical abilities are not equal to their intellectual understanding of the sport. This becomes extremely frustrating and the inability to perform at the desired level can reinforce in the child a complacency to remain in their current fixations, where they already experience a feeling of accomplishment from their mastery of it.

This brings up another important point, that of the need for gratification from others enjoyment (acceptance) of the autistic child’s proficiency. I found two of my obsessions, music performance and graphic design, fulfill this need because they provide a forum for instant feedback… and my relative adeptness in both typically results in appreciation of my work and affirmation of my competency. This is, I have found with my own son, very important for a child with autism in order to continue in an activity and learn the skills those activities encourage.

While typical sports, like baseball or soccer, may still be valid options for a child with autism while maintaining good, proactive coaching from mom/dad, I have some alternative ideas that I think would better allow the child to become proficient at and experience achievement. These would include sports like karate, swimming, track and field, and bicycling. These perfectly intermingle a team environment while letting the child improve and compete on their own. Many karate studios combine character training (honesty, respect, listening) with their forms training. I have heard that both ASD and NT kids gain a lot of self-confidence, not just on the playground, but in life through karate or other martial arts training. It also encourages the child with autism to learn and perfect their form one step at a time while requiring them to show competency in class and getting promoted to higher belt levels.

Most importantly, be proactive in your child’s physical fitness, listen to what they need, and don't be afraid to try things out to see where he fits in. It's infinitely more important for your child to be physically and emotionally healthy and interested in what he is doing than for him to follow in someone’s footsteps and feel the pressure of attaining unrealistic hopes.

Play well!


  1. Wow. Thank you, Brian. This is very well-written and very insightful. I look forward to reading your future posts and learning more about the amazing world of Autism/Asperger's Syndrome.