Certain sports can be more difficult for autistic children, but some — like swimming, horseback riding, and martial arts — can help with social skills, coordination, and more.
Feeling a sense of belonging is an important part of a child’s development. Sports participation can help kids feel included, relieve stress or anxiety, and improve their self-esteem in the process.
According to a 2020 review, physical activity can have positive effects on autistic children, leading to improvements in their social skills, communication abilities, and motor skills.
Autistic traits can make engaging in some sports more challenging. By learning which sports can best support their mental and physical health, parents can help their kids learn and grow.
Autistic children may find it challenging to participate in some individual sports, group sports, or both depending on their individual traits. Autism traits vary widely in range and severity between people, and not all autistic people will find sports challenging.
“To be successful in sports one must exhibit balance, body coordination, motor planning, and visual-motor skills,” says Kate Usher, an occupational therapist with Durand, an autism non-profit based in New Jersey. She notes that an autistic person “often presents with lower muscle tone, which impacts gross motor skill […] and can affect performance in sports.”
A small 2021 study reported that autistic adolescents have more movement variability and lower coordination during walking and running, which might make some sports more challenging.
Autistic children may also find social communication and social interaction challenging. This can impact their participation in collaborative or group sports, especially with neurotypical kids. Sensory issues, such as bright lights or loud noises, can also be a barrier to participation.
Despite the possible challenges, Usher adds that every child should be given the opportunity to embrace the joy that sports can contribute to their quality of life.
And if your child is having difficulty engaging with sports, it might simply be that they haven’t yet found the sport that’s right for them.
With any leisure activity, the best choice is often the one that the person is most motivated to take part in, regardless of their skill or experience levels.
“Intrinsic motivation is one’s internal desire — you participate because it is fun and enjoyable, rather than working for a reward,” Usher says.
If your child seems interested in sports, you might help them explore their options and let them have a go at whatever they are drawn to. You could also look into what sports community camps might offer.
Here are some sports you might want to try with your autistic kid:
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Horseback riding can be very relaxing while also strengthening the core and leg muscles. Horses are commonly used in animal-assisted therapy, known as equine therapy.
Kids who have trouble communicating or connecting with peers or adults can sometimes find strong and meaningful connections with animals, including horses. With horseback riding, your kid might get the benefits of connection as well as some exercise.
A 2018 study reported that a 10-week therapeutic horseback riding program led to lower irritability, improved social and communication behaviors, and improved language abilities in autistic kids.
Whether it’s karate, taekwondo, or judo, martial arts are excellent for improving your physical agility while also eliminating the issues that can arise during social interaction in teams.
A 2019 study found that a 13-week program of mixed martial arts (MMA) improved executive function in school-aged autistic children.
Group sports like football or basketball may be more challenging, as “collaborative sports require a greater variety of communication, coordination, and visual-motor skills needed to be successful,” says Usher.
That said, participating in both individual and group sports can be beneficial for your kid’s development.
To help autistic kids participate, some sports centers offer buddy programs where autistic children are paired up with a peer or adult to support them during practice or games.
Practicing in advance might also help them engage with group sports. Kids may find more enjoyment in their chosen sport if they have individual training before moving to a group session. That way, they can try new skills in a safe and supported environment before being among peers.
The best sports for autistic kids are often the ones they are most drawn to, and they may find that certain sports are easier or more fun to engage with. Individual and group sports hold many benefits for children, whether they’re autistic or allistic (non-autistic).
“Through participating in sports they are provided with leisure activities that support an active lifestyle, promote communication skills, support the development of one’s strength and endurance, but most importantly, promote inclusion amongst peers and in the community,” Usher says.