Team Works

Sports, Athletics and Autism

by Mary Boland

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an increasingly recognized developmental disability with about 1 in every 68 children falling on the autism spectrum (CDC, 2014). Adults who were not properly diagnosed in previous decades can also be on the widely varying spectrum. Depending on where the individual falls on the spectrum, a number of different characteristics can present, such as difficulty with social interaction, irregularities in motor coordination, and attention deficits or sensory integration disorders. Typically, people with autism benefit from support with social skills and accommodating their individual routines or self-soothing behaviors.

How does ASD affect individuals?

Some people with autism possess exceptional skills in areas such as music, visual arts, and math, as well as above average intellectual capabilities. Others, however, are unable to live independently and require more caregiving and attention. In addition, children with ASD are at an increased risk of being overweight or obese.

How might we help?

To alleviate the risk of obesity and the health issues that come with it, one common activity from which all children with autism can benefit is exercise and sport. If an adult offers structured support, sports give children practice in social situations and the opportunity to improve their motor skills. Yet it is important to consider each child’s individual needs. Because social interactions are not intuitive and can be stressful to children on the autism spectrum, individual sports, such as swimming or gymnastics, may be a better choice for physical activity than team sports. Some children may have sensory integration dysfunction and require certain adjustments, such as replacing a whistle blow with a visual signal. Meanwhile, others may need encouragement and help in interaction with their teammates and the other team’s members.

What can my church do?

A number of resources exist online at sites, such as the Autism Society and Autism Speaks, to make your congregation and worship service welcoming to those with autism. If you’re interested in an inclusive or special needs sport ministry for your congregation, consider a partnership with national organizations such as TOPSoccer, or contact your local Autism Society Affiliate or Autism Speaks for information on how you can integrate an autism-friendly ministry into your congregation. There are also a number of regional sports programs for children with special needs that you can search for in your area. Be the Best Sport is one such regional organization in Long Island that operates its multisport initiative out of a variety of locations, including faith communities.

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