Sports and Sensory Overload: How to Find the Sport That’s Right for Your Child

by Kelly Allen

We all know the story. You’re at a little league game, cheering on your favorite little ball player. The other team hit’s a pop fly, bases are loaded and it’s one more out to the end of the game. The ball flies past the 3rd basemen and shortstop. It keeps going farther and farther until you finally realize its intended target… It’s heading straight for your child, day dreaming and picking at the grass in the outfield. He hasn’t made a single play all season, and this time isn’t going to be any different. Just as the ball hits the ground right beside him, the whole crowed goes wild, yelling and pointing for him to pick up the ball. He is startled by the excitement but doesn’t seem to remember what to do next. When he finally catches sight of the ball on the ground next to him, he clumsily picks it up and tosses it toward the infield. It goes about five feet before hitting the ground hard, still in the outfield. He stands there unsure what to do until the shortstop runs to the outfield, picks up the ball and throws it to home plate just as the last runner crosses home. The game ends with the other team winning by two runs.

For many parents this is enough to give up on sports completely. You might say to yourself “David just isn’t a sports person! Why expose him to the frustration and failure?” But is it really David that is not a “sports person”? Or do we as parents struggle to see the issues that are really holding our children back?

Children who struggle with autism need inclusion. They need to experience life along side of their peers in order to learn from them and build effective social skills. This is something that is seen repeatedly through research studies and therapy. Children with autism who stay involved with inclusive activities progress more quickly than those who are isolated. These children also need consistent exercise. Due to a variety of symptoms, most children with autism do not develop physically as well as their peers. Obesity can become a major issue as well as poor muscle development and motor control. Sports provide a valuable avenue to correct those deficits while building self esteem and encouraging positive peer relationships. If we take some time to understand the issues that hold our children back, we can take the necessary steps to help them find the sport that is right for them.

For children with autism, day dreaming and mental isolation is a constant struggle. Even older children and adults with mild forms of autism talk extensively about their struggle to “stay engaged” and their need to “retreat” within their own minds from time to time. This tendency to mentally drift makes it very difficult for most children with autism to participate in team sports. Baseball, Basketball and Soccer all require a child to stay attuned to his team and highly aware at every moment. For children who already posses a talent for the sport this may be a relatively small issue that can be overcome with practice. I am aware of one teenage boy with autism that is a very accomplished baseball player. However, if your child shows no interests in the sport, and has no obvious talent for it, I wouldn’t try to push him into it. Instead focus on individual sports where the child is almost exclusively focused on his own performance alone.

Sensory overload is another major issue to overcome. For children with autism, there is often a very pronounced sensitivity to various physical senses. Sounds that other people may or may not notice (a particular note in a song, the high pitched buzz from an electrical device, or loud stadiums and movie theaters) can actually cause physical pain and extreme anxiety for children with autism. Fabric and food textures are also common sources of discomfort which is why many children with autism have very strong food aversions or sensitivity to clothing. The game itself is hard enough; but if your child can’t tolerate the atmosphere surrounding the sport, it will be virtually impossible to concentrate on the mechanics of the game alone. Each child is different so taking some time to understand these aversions will help you choose the sport that is right for your child.

For my son, temperature, fabrics and noise were all issues he could not tolerate. One season of soccer proved to be a disaster when the summer heat rolled in and Josh spent the whole season desperate to get off the field and out of his uniform. For Josh, water has always been his favorite place to be. When he is in the water, it sooths his skin, and keeps his body at a nice even temperature. When the world became too noisy, he could float on his back, submerging his ears and blocking out the sound around him. When I found a community swim league, I was hopeful that it would be a good fit for Josh, but he was not as certain. After previous failure in sports, he worried about being labeled a “loser” or holding his team back. When I asked the head coach to talk with Josh about her expectations for him, she was eager to help.

“We are all here to have fun, Josh.” She said as she knelt down to look him in the eye.

“The only person you compete against is yourself! If you swim faster than you did at the last race, you are a winner. Does that sound ok?”

Josh was more than ok. He loved the program and the coaches. He was never the fastest swimmer but that wasn’t the point. He was swimming because he enjoyed it. He was swimming because it was great exercise, and he spent time around his peers. After completing all five levels of the Red Cross swim program and two years of swim league, Josh decided that he wanted to teach others to swim as well. By the age of 13 he completed the Assistant Swim Instructor’s training course, and began volunteering as an assistant swim instructor.

Though swimming can be an excellent choice for kids like Josh, other children struggling with smell aversions may not be able to handle the chlorine that accompanies most pool sports. If chlorine is an issue, you may want to try a lake or outdoor pool program.

Another sport that has recently gained a great deal of attention in the autistic world is surfing. If you live in a coastal area, I would highly recommend looking into Surfer’s Healing. This summer camp program is designed to expose children to the sport of surfing and build relationships among parents in an effort to foster support systems for families struggling with autism. Surfer’s Healing can be a life changing experience for families dealing with more debilitating forms of autism and other disabilities.

Karate is often recommended for children with autism due to its self paced belt system and optional competitions. Because instructors often emphasize self control, the classroom atmosphere is often more respectful than other competitive sports. Agility and self defense are also practical skills for any child to learn.

Gymnastics and ballet provide the self paced cooperative environment for younger children but be aware that these sports can become very competitive as the children get older and enter into more advanced programs. I have found that gymnastics and ballet are often very good “foundational” sports, teaching young children how to control their bodies more efficiently. Once they reach school age they are able to transition into other sports with a more developed sense of balance, flexibility and motor control.

Running is another very inclusive sport for children with autism. For many young children with autism, the impulse to “flee” stressful situations cause’s serious risks as the child can very easily end up lost or abducted. Most local police departments help parents deal with this issue by providing GPS ankle bracelets for children who struggle with autism. However, what parents may not realize is that this impulse may also indicate a natural ability for running as a sport. Those who are natural runners will tell you that running is a form of stress relief, and that running helps them manage their emotions as well as their physical health. For children who have this “fleeing impulse” running in a controlled environment could provide significant emotional benefits as well as physical and social benefits. Connecting with a local running club or participating with your child in a community “fun run” is a great way to show your child that running is a good thing when it is done within the safety of a group.

Mountain Biking, BMX and skateboarding are all thrilling sports for those who have a passion for adventure. Exposing your child to these activities at a young age will give those with the talent for it the opportunity to use that talent before it is stifled by growing insecurities or lack of use. A friend of mine had a two year old son that would sit on a skateboard and push himself around their court. By the time her little boy was five he was skating down the half pipe at their local skate park. You never know what your child can do until you give them the chance to try!

Special sports programs for children with more extreme forms of autism are also available in most communities. Check with your local Parks and Recreation department for alternative sports programs in your area.

Finally, I’d like to give one quick word of warning. Not all social groups are equal, and not all social situations are beneficial. Exposing a child with autism to an overly toxic social setting is not going to teach positive skill building. Children with autism struggle to process their own emotions. Some children with autism also deal with serious anger and impulse control issues. Toxic social situations will only exaggerate these issues. Listen to your child, and watch their behavior. If you believe that the team or sports club they have joined has become a negative environment, don’t be afraid to take a closer look. Remove your child if need be. There are too many good programs out there to settle for one that is going to hurt your child. Sports do not always have to be about winning, but it should always be about having fun.