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Sports and Autism

As we’ve discussed in the past, physical activities are extremely helpful for children with autism in helping them to both improve their bodies and 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 as being a part of a team requires excellent social and communication skills, which individuals with autism often struggle with. The struggle to find appropriate exercise activities is common among parents who have children with autism.


Individuals with autism often stand a better chance excelling at independent sports; sports in which a person is essentially competing against his or herself, such as swimming, running, horseback riding, and bowling.  However, team sports can and do present an amazing opportunity for children to flourish socially. Below we will look at several instances in which team and individual sports have helped children to develop key cognitive skills.


A new documentary called Swim Team takes an in-depth look at a swim team in New Jersey whose members all have been diagnosed with autism. The documentary begins with the thesis that participation in sports is one of the earliest gateways to community inclusion for most children, but autistic kids are generally not welcome on community teams.


To remedy this all-too-common issue, the film takes one particular New Jersey family as its subject when the parents decide to form their own swimming team, the Hammerheads, designed specifically for children with autism. Within a matter of weeks, the team had 15 members, all of whom had been diagnosed with autism, and most are Asian and Hispanic boys, underserved in autism intervention and underrepresented in media. The documentary covers the team as they compete through their first season and face both challenges and successes that ultimately empower them in ways they never could have imagined.


Another example of how team sports helped a child with autism become high functioning lies in the case of Trey Clark, the son of professional baseball player Will Clark. As a young child, Trey idolized his father and repeatedly communicated his desire to play ball himself. Through intensive occupational therapy, Trey learned the communicative, social, and muscle skills that eventually earned him a place on the baseball team at The Dunham School in Baton Rouge, LA, where he is currently one of two honorary team captains. According to his coach Joey Thibodeaux, “Trey gets so much joy from baseball and really has a passion for it. That’s something you don’t see every day and it’s fun for me to see that. You can tell it’s pure and genuine. It’s good for our other kids and they’re good for Trey. They make sure he’s included in things.”


Meanwhile, in looking at the solitary sport of marathon running, identical twins Alex and Jamie Schneider, who were diagnosed at the age of 21 months old, have found great success through applied behavioral analysis, which was still an emerging field when their parents pursued it in the early 90s. Their mother, Robyn, soon began to focus on finding what made them happy, which was a challenge as both boys are nonverbal. However, when they tried their hands at the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program, a Long Island-based walking and wheelchair organization, it was clear to Robyn that running brought the twins an immense amount of pleasure unlike anything else.


Soon after their first competitive runs, the boys began practicing three times a week and participating in races, with the help of their individual coaches. Almost a decade on from first discovering the sport, the twins have accomplished more at the age of 24 than many neurotypical runners do in their lifetimes, with each having run 150 races, including marathons and a 50K race. Running helps bring a great deal of joy to both the twins and the family and has also helped them to become more social and comfortable competing in the crowded and loud environment of marathons.


As the above examples show, even though sports can present a number of challenges, both team and individual sports can serve as an amazing platform to initiate incredible changes in the development of children with autism.