By Kelley Yost Abrams, PhD

About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.

Sports for Autistic Children: Benefits and Recommendations

Every child must take part in some physical activity for their well-being. Nevertheless, it might be difficult for children with autism to participate in certain sports. Fortunately, there are many options that your child may find enjoyable. 

Autism can create specific challenges when it comes to participation in sports, such as a loud play environment, navigation of group or team dynamics, or the need for specific coordination skills. However, certain physical activities and sports, including non-team activities like horseback riding, break open exciting possibilities.

Here, we recommend some sports options for autistic children.

Sports Recommended for Autistic Children

Choosing the ideal sporting options for children on the autism spectrum depends on their unique needs and interests. Your child might lean towards individual sports or team sports, and it's crucial to consider their preferences. Taking sensory issues into account is another essential aspect. The goal is to pick sports that provide a structured and predictable environment for your child.

Customizing the sport or any other physical activity to suit your child's preferences may involve discussing modifications with coaches or instructors in advance. This can include adjustments to equipment or adapting the level of instruction to accommodate your child better.

In some cases, your child might not have an interest in traditional sports or other physical activities. In such instances, discovering alternative activities that bring them joy, like music, dance, art, or playing in the park, can be a fulfilling exploration for both you and your child.

Individual Sports/Activities

For autistic children with sensory issues who are uncomfortable with team sports, low-impact individual sports can be suitable. Some individual sports can be played in pairs as well. 

Recommended individual sports and activities:

  • Archery
  • Horseback riding
  • Tennis 
  • Swimming
  • Running
  • Yoga
  • Martial arts
  • Biking (cycling)
  • Bowling
  • Hiking
  • Gymnastics

Benefits of Individual Sports

Individual sports, particularly low-impact options, emerge as a suitable choice for autistic children grappling with sensory issues and discomfort in team sports. The flexibility of some individual sports is underscored by the acknowledgment that some can be played in pairs, offering a balance between social interaction and the avoidance of overwhelming dynamics present in team sports. Overall, engaging in individual sports provides autistic children with a sense of liberation and independence, creating a supportive environment that aligns with their comfort and preferences.

Team Sports

While some children with autism may feel uncomfortable in all types of team sports, others may find some of them comfortable. Team-based sports have structure and predictability and help build social skills. 

Recommended team sports:

  • Soccer
  • Track and Field

Benefits of Team Sports

The team sports recommended above boost physical exercise, focus on common goal achievement, and develop skills like teamwork, communication, and patience. However, depending on your child's preferences, in many cases, these sports may be more suitable for your child if there aren't any loud crowds or huge turnouts of spectators watching and cheering the games.

Team sports offer vital benefits for children with autism, promoting enhanced social skills, effective communication, collaboration, empathy, and respect. Participation fosters real-time problem-solving, encouraging adaptability in strategies based on opponents and teammates. This dynamic experience instills flexibility, which is valuable both on and off the field. 

Additionally, team sports provide a strong sense of belonging and camaraderie within a community that shares common interests and goals. Overall, these sports serve as a comprehensive platform, facilitating skill development, friendship, and crucial life skills for children with autism.

Navigating the Introduction to New Sports for Children with Autism

Preparing a child diagnosed with autism for a new sport involves several key steps. Parents can start by discussing the sport with their child, using visual aids like pictures or videos to convey what to expect, and addressing rules and expectations to alleviate anxiety. 

A visit to the sports location beforehand helps familiarize the child with the environment, reducing first-day anxiety. Meeting the coach in advance provides an opportunity for the child to establish a connection, further reducing anxiety. Home practice of essential skills builds confidence.

Moreover, using social stories—visual aids explaining what will happen during practices or games—can assist children with autism in understanding social cues. It's crucial to customize strategies based on each child's unique needs and interests, emphasizing collaboration between parents, coaches, and therapists for a successful sports experience. Parents should be mindful that every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another, underscoring the importance of tailoring approaches to specific needs and fostering effective communication between all involved parties.

Moving Forward

Parents who have discovered that their child is on the autism spectrum shouldn’t delay enrolling them in sports and other physical activities. According to research, sports training programs have positively benefited both motor and social skills, as well as addressing repetitive behaviors and enhancing individual functioning. If you’re unsure about your child’s development and don’t know where to start, an initial screening is the wisest first step.  

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