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Sports and Autism

There are several studies showing that exercise is not only good for our body but also good for our minds.  Participating in group sports helps children learn how to work as a team and gain confidence in a skill.  But team sports often present many challenges for kids with autism.  The struggle to find appropriate exercise activities is common among parents who have children with autism.

For our family, there was something about having a baby boy that conjured up thoughts of sports.  We thought that with Tyler’s high level of energy, he was destined to be an Olympic sprinter.  I can remember thinking his lack of feeling for pain was some kind of sign he should be football player.  The day we got the diagnosis, I still did not realize how autism would affect my son’s ability to be physically active let alone play sports. 

Around the time he turned 5 years old, we thought pee-wee soccer would be easy enough to join.  Maybe I was still in denial, but I really thought it would work.  What pee-wee soccer did accomplish was to provide us with a reality check. 

Perhaps there is nothing more “real” than seeing your child with other typical children.  No matter how typical your child with autism looks or acts at home, social skill deficits become most apparent during child to child interaction.  Whether it is a sporting event, recess or a birthday party, social skill deficits become quite noticeable.  But it is also on these occasions when you might see glimpses of typical interaction.  No matter how small the success, it leaves you yearning for more. 

During soccer, I can remember watching Tyler on the field with the other typical children and knowing while he looked adorable, he did not behave like the other kids.  He was extremely distracted by all the spectators and running children.  Many times he would simply stand there while the other children ran circles around him.  Other times, when he did engage, he had no idea which kids were on his team so he would just kick the ball wherever he wanted.  There were more than a few times that he tried scoring into his own goal.

Finally, we discovered Special Olympics.  Special Olympics soccer was more his speed, but he still couldn’t get the “team” aspects of soccer.  He continued to stand still while the other kids ran right by him.  While I loved the Special Olympics experience, my son still didn’t like soccer.  He loved the trophies but in the end, there were too many faces to remember and way too much action.

After the soccer experience, we thought we’d try the slower game of t-ball.  Baseball often allowed Tyler to have individual time to process what he was supposed to be doing.  For example, Tyler could hit the ball well.  But playing in the outfield, he sat down in the grass and picked flowers because he could not pay attention while all the other kids had to bat.  And well, catching the ball…not so much.  After a few seasons of racking up trophies for “just being on a team”, Tyler was done with baseball.

Football was pretty much out of the question since he couldn’t throw or catch a football.  Soon we started to rule out outdoor sports in general because my son was developing a “flying bug phobia” and was afraid every little fly was a bee.  Indoor basketball seemed it was a possibility but Tyler often lacked the focus to play a group game which required frequent social interaction.

Tyler’s experience with sports is fairly common for our kids.  As a result of the autism, many kids have difficulty working in groups, focusing and playing ball sports.  So if the research that says exercise is good for the body and mind, what is a parent to do? 

Given the limitations above, there are other exercise options for our kids like running, swimming or jumping on a trampoline.  But what is a good way to get our kids to exercise in a group?  For our son, karate was the answer.  While not a team sport, he still is required to interact with other children but not so often that it becomes overwhelming. 

I will tell you that everyone in the family was a little nervous about putting Tyler in karate.  His dad was nervous that karate would teach him to be more aggressive.  I was more worried that he would not be able to focus and would become a behavior problem in class.  Would he be able to sit still and listen?  Would he need a behavior therapist to participate?  So many questions but the possible reward for Tyler seemed so much greater than the risk. 

From what I can tell, there are not many “special ed” karate classes available to our kids.  So in our case, we went straight into a class with typical children.  The karate instructor told me he knew how to work with our kids and we could do a trial lesson before committing.  He also told me there were other kids on the spectrum in the class.

The program we joined has a “focus of the month”, such as respect, listening and honesty.  As Tyler works through the program, he is rewarded with stripes and new belts.  The instructor requires each of the students to share a piece of news with the class, so Tyler has to get used to speaking in front of the class.  The greatest benefits have been that he has increased his mid and upper body strength and also has gained a growing sense of confidence. 

So how does the autism reflect itself at karate?  There have been a few rocky moments along the way that you would expect like one day when he ran out of the class crying because he didn’t earn his stripe.  I did have to speak with the karate instructor about how he could have clearly explained this consequence beforehand so my son would understand “the rules” and avoid a meltdown.

Another day, the instructor turned jumping jacks into a game, but  unfortunately, Tyler did not understand they were playing a game and started to get upset.  Unless a direction is specifically given, the child with autism may not understand the social cues (i.e. a group is now playing a game and not just doing a drill).  And yes, my son still finds it hard not to stim in front of the mirrors and happily smiles at himself.  Sometimes he finds it hard to focus.  But despite all the little drawbacks, my son is learning to exercise in a group and more importantly, he has gained a sense of self-confidence. 

After our positive experience, I would encourage any parents of children with autism who have been thinking about karate to give it a try.  You may have to shop around a little before you find the right school for your child.  Some karate schools are flexible and some are not.  Some schools have strict requirements and encourage tournaments and some do not.  Some instructors have experience with autism and some do not.  The point is that you should not give up on the idea karate after visiting one school.  It may take a little while to find the right karate instructor who is good with our children, but it will be worth the experience.

What I have I learned along the way?  This experience has taught me to never underestimate my son’s abilities.  It has also taught me that despite autism, I can still allow myself to have hope for my son even when hope doesn’t seem apparent.  Yes it true that pee-wee soccer gave me a reality check but that was the reality for that day, not his entire future.

Who am I to say what he cannot accomplish?  Instead of focusing on what he can’t do, we focused on what Tyler could do.  I’ve watched a kid who endured hours of physical therapy who now can climb to the highest rung on the ropes course with his typical peers.  I’ve watched a kid who couldn’t catch a ball enjoy karate and kick high with the rest of the kids.  My son has transformed into a child who wants to be with his peers at karate and is accepted for his quirky ways.  My son may be marching to the beat of a different drummer, but he is enjoying being with the band. 

My Great Web page Autism & Sports


Speaking of Exercise:  My son absolutely LOVED this gyroscope aerobic exercise machine at our local Helicopter Museum's Rotofest.  Not many people were interested in going on this machine but he wanted to do it twice!  Yes, our kids are amazing!!!!

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