By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 21 May 2011)
Because autistic spectrum disorders may impair coordination, many assume that they rules out athletic achievement, but this is a faulty assumption for the following reasons:
- Not all those with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) suffer such impairments (it is estimated that poor motor coordination is a characteristic in anywhere from 50%-90% of cases).
- Those who do have poor motor coordination can improve it by engaging in movement therapy or independent fitness routines that they choose themselves.
- Many athletic pursuits require strength and endurance rather than motor coordination.
- The intense focus and adherence to routines common to those with ASDs ensures that some individuals are well-suited to certain athletic pursuits.
Why then do many of those with ASDs come to loath athletic pursuits? The answer to this question often lies in negative school experiences. In personal accounts of the school experiences of those with ASD there is a common theme of enforced participation in activities for which the children had no aptitude or interest, and the adverse experiences that inevitably resulted.
Those on the autistic spectrum are uncomfortable making eye contact and have difficulty interpreting social rules and facial expressions. Most prefer to spend time alone or with a close friend or two, and usually find noisy, chaotic environments extremely stressful. Such traits can make team sports difficult, but don’t necessarily interfere with solitary sports.
Special Interests and Skills
People with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, a mild version of autism, have special interests that tend to obsess them, and in some cases become extremely knowledgeable and skilled in one or more areas of interest. This tendency to fixate on certain activities can lead to athletic achievement for some, assuming that they are able to find physical activities that interest them and they can overcome negative school experiences surrounding forced group sports participation.
Preference for Individual Sports
Those with ASDs have difficulty coordinating their movements with those of other people, and may have problems understanding the unwritten rules and social aspects of team sports. Being forced to engage in athletic activities for which they have no affinity under the scrutiny of classmates and teachers can create a lifelong aversion to sports. However, despite the common belief that all those with ASDs dislike athletic pursuits, a perusal of ASD forums indicates that many of those with ASDs do enjoy and excel in certain athletic activities, and while there are certainly those who dislike all sports, the same can be said of many neurotypical (non-autistic) individuals. The primary difference is that those with ASD tend to prefer individual sports to team sports, and many did not enjoy athletic pursuits until they were able to engage in them on their own terms.
Sports that are often mentioned as special interests by those with ASDs include running, weight training, swimming, martial arts, and other individualized activities that require intense, regular training. There are a number of with notable achievements in these fields (see sidebar to the right), and many credit autism or Asperger’s syndrome with providing the focus and unique cognitive capacities required to develop and enhance their particular skills. Once a sport or athletic pursuit becomes a special interest, an ASD individual will pursue it with a single-minded intensity that increases the likelihood of achieving excellence.
Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Physical Education
Many of those with autistic spectrum disorders are denied the physical and psychological benefits of athletic engagement because they have developed an aversion to physical pursuits as a result of negative experiences during their school years. This has led to the mistaken belief that all those with ASDs are naturally inclined to dislike all athletic pursuits.
Parents and educators, rather than forcing children with ASDs to engage in particular sports, should allow them to choose athletic pursuits that interest them. Students with ASDs would be better served if they were given the opportunity to explore activities of their choosing in order to select those that could potentially become special interests, rather than having a generic physical education curriculum imposed on them. Of course, as with neurotypicals, there are some who will never take to athletics, but providing options and opportunities for children with ASDs to engage in athletic activities of their choosing and on their own terms increases the likelihood that they will find something physical that they like to do.
For more articles on autistic spectrum disorders, visit the main Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome page.
- Attwood, T. (2007). The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Sainsbury, C. (2000). Martian in the Playground. Bristol, UK. Lucky Duck Publishing Ltd.
- Whitman, Thomas L. (2004). The Development of Autism: A Self-Regulatory Perspective. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.