Providing Sensory Stimulation
Children with autism often have impaired abilities to process sensory information in order to respond to visual, touch and movement stimulation in a functional way. These children may be clumsy or excessively crave movement and have poor body awareness. The ideal sports for kids with autism provide the type of sensory stimulation that helps organize their brains so that they can interpret sensory information.
Physical activities that involve spinning (i.e., roller skating), moving up and down (i.e., jumping on a trampoline), and traveling down an incline (i.e., skiing) all stimulate the “vestibular” or balance sense.
Heavy pressure activities such as swimming, wrestling, martial arts and weight lifting stimulate the skin and muscles. These sports also provide visual stimulation that helps develop eye-hand coordination.
Children learn many skills from sports that can help them in other areas of their lives. Sports can improve body awareness as they move their bodies to avoid obstacles while running, shift weight to balance on a skate board or move in all the planes while riding a horse or performing gymnastics. Sports that involve animals-such as horseback riding or dog sled racing provide the additional benefit of building a relationship with another living being. It is well documented that individuals with autism often relate well to animals because communication is nonverbal and animals are not judgmental.
Because sports for kids with autism help improve overall coordination and balance they also contribute to improving abilities to perform gross and fine motor tasks in the school environment- such as climbing stairs, carrying a cafeteria tray or handwriting. Sports such as weight lifting that strengthen muscles help improve sitting posture which in turn may positively impact academic performance.
Outdoor recreation such as backpacking, cross country skiing or canoeing provides an opportunity to compete against oneself-as one climbs a mountain or learn new motor skills such as kayaking or sailing. These environments provide an escape from the daily crowds and technologies that can easily over-stimulate an individual with autism. Scouting and other youth oriented outdoor clubs can provide these ideal sports for kids with autism.
Promoting Social-Emotional Development
The ideal sports for kids with autism provide clear directions which help to promote their social and emotional development. Martial arts involve learning progressive steps taught with repetitive verbal, visual and kinesthetic experiences and they teach the child how to work cooperatively with a partner and move with control.
Sports such as running, cycling and skiing that involve aerobic exercise contribute to cardiovascular fitness. The endorphins that are released during exercise produce the well known “runner’s high”. These good feelings help to reduce the anxiety and depression that frequently affects children with autism. Feeling good in turn promotes social-emotional development.
“Building Bridges through Sensory Integration”; Ellen Yack, Paula Aquilla & Shirley Sutton; 2004.
“Autism: A comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach”; Heather Miller Kuhaneck & Renee Watling; 2010.