With so much emphasis on developing language, completing schoolwork, and pick up social skills, an often overlooked area is the role sports and physical activity can play in the development of a child with autism.
The most widely used behavioral intervention plans (BIP) are known to focus on the reduction of maladaptive behaviors by replacing them with appropriate replacement behaviors through the use of positive behavioral support strategies. However, new research and anecdotal evidence suggests that integrating some alternative sensory-related choices such as sports, exercise, and other physical activities to develop motor skills can be a helpful complement to our traditional BIP’s. Including an element of physical activity or sensory input has led to significant improvements in symptoms, behaviors, and quality of life not only for the individual but also for the families that are affected by autism.
Although it is understood that participation in physical activity may be challenging for individuals with autism (possibly due to limited motor functioning, low motivation, difficulty in planning, and difficulty in self-monitoring), we should still carefully consider a customized introduction to physical activity in small phases and blending it with our ABA program. Perhaps this can keep our interactive sessions fun, exciting and beneficial. But there’s no cookie cutter approach. We understand that when there’s an increase in auditory, visual, or tactile stimuli, it may be challenging for individuals with autism so we strongly encourage that the clinical team integrates each new introduction with a compassionate and customized approach that best suits the individual’s needs.
Some other benefits of physical activity:
- Social skills improve: To be engaged in a sport, your child will need to interact with other people beyond the familiar circle of people he or she normally deals with at home and school. This broadening of the social circle goes a long way in helping him/her work on their social skills and generalization. Specifically, through playing a sport regularly, a child will learn how to self-regulate, get a good understanding of acceptable behavior, and also learn how to deal with conflict.
- Helps a child stay healthy: A child with autism is like any other child who will benefit greatly from some physical activity. It is important to give the body a little dose of exercise every day, even if it means having to cut down on some studies and learning by just a bit. Some statistics indicate that obesity is more prevalent among children with autism than it is for peers their age who do not have ASDs.
- Gives the child ‘freedom’: A child with autism may find themselves subjected to an endless barrage of lessons and instructions at school and then at home. As well meaning parents, we run the risk of trying too hard. Sports and physical activity is a scheduled time in the day for kids to just enjoy themselves. On the sports field they are free to let loose.Improve motor function: Engaging in physical activity and playing sports helps improve the hand-eye coordination and general motor function for most children with autism.
Choose the physical activity wisely. Do not try and get over ambitious and gun for a team sport in the hope that it will help your child build social skills. It is hard enough to carry on a one-to-one interaction for someone with ASD, don’t make them deal with huge numbers of people – it can be too overwhelming and will put them off sports altogether.
Games like swimming, track and field, cycling, gymnastics and horse riding are popular. Some parents have had fair success getting their kids involved in golf. Others have tried rock climbing. Hiking out in nature can be a wonderful way to connect with your child as well. There is no universal rule. Go with what you feel your child will enjoy and something that they are capable of mastering within the constraints of their condition.