Over the past year Autism Daily Newscast has featured various sports-related therapies that can benefit people with autism. Yoga, horseback riding, and specialty camps for basketball, soccer, and other sports have all been shown to offer positive results. So what are the specific benefits of sports-related programs for people with autism?
For starters, physical exercise is always a good thing. The obesity rate for children in the United States has risen steadily over the past few decades, and children with autism are just as susceptible to illnesses related to a sedentary lifestyle as anybody else. Children with autism may also be at an increased risk for obesity, due to unusual dietary patterns, side effects of medications, and physical or neurological difficulties that make participation in athletics challenging.
It can be difficult to motivate a child with autism to participate in sports or athletics. Many are not motivated by the social status that being part of a team can offer. Children with autism may also have difficulty following drills or understanding the rules of many complicated, fast-paced sports. Many have sensory issues that can interfere with their ability to perform certain skills, or that can cause distraction or distress.
Studies have shown that regular physical exercise has benefits for individuals with autism. One study followed children with severe autism who walked on a treadmill regularly for nine months. At the end of the study, body-mass index significantly dropped for most of the participants. The frequency, speed, duration, and elevation of the treadmill also increased over the course of the study, showing a general rise in exercise capacity and physical fitness for the participants. Another study followed students taking part in three 60-minute hydrotherapy sessions per week over ten weeks. Results showed significant increases in balance, speed, agility, strength, flexibility, and endurance.
Other studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can decrease negative, self-stimulating behaviors such as rocking, spinning, or head-banging. It can also decrease self-injurious behaviors and temporarily increase attention span. While the reasons for this are unknown, one theory states that highly structured routines inherent in running or swimming may be similar to the self-stimulating, repetitive behaviors, thus offering a temporary alternative.
Participating in sports also offers social benefits. The benefits of teamwork, collaboration, and friendship are well-documented for typically-developing children. Participation in organized sports offers opportunities to read social cues, coordinate and connect with others, and to develop relationships with peers. Children with autism will need more support in order to succeed in organized sports, but the results can be significant. Many communities offer adapted sports for children with disabilities, and can often accommodate children with autism.
It is clear that physical exercise and participation in team sports can be beneficial to children on the autism spectrum. Anything that improves one’s physical health will lead to benefits in all areas of life. Physical health, combined with the social opportunities provided by organized sports, can give children with autism an extra edge.