Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Sports

Basketball
Foot on Basketball, Image Courtesy of photostock, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

An estimated 50% to 90% of those with autistic spectrum disorders have impaired motor coordination, and many assume that this rules out athletic achievement, but this is a faulty assumption for the following reasons:

    • Not all those with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) have poor motor coordination.
    • Those who do have impaired 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 autistic spectrum disorders 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.

Accomplished Autistic Athletes

Sports in which those with ASDs have excelled include running, swimming, surfing, martial arts, baseball, basketball, and archery.

The following examples indicate what can be achieved when an athletic activity becomes the special interest of an individual with an autistic spectrum disorder. Many credit the achievements of these athletes to the intense focus, penchant for routine, and in some cases, unique cognitive abilities that come with ASD.

Running

Anthony Crudale, a competitive marathon runner, was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old and didn’t speak until the age of four. Crudale has overcome numerous obstacles, achieving a university degree in art. His interests include heavy metal music and long-distance running.

Those who don’t have a good understanding of autism often assume that Crudale been misdiagnosed due to his apparent intelligence. This tanned, fit young man does not match the stereotypical view of those with ASD. Crudale runs 115 miles each week and does weight training at a nearby fitness center. He has a few friends, but spends much of his time on his own by choice. The ASD tendency to maintain routines ensures that Crudale trains intensely and regularly.

Crudale isn’t the only successful marathon runner on the autistic spectrum. Andrew Bryant is another ASD running star. Doctors had little hope for Bryant when he received his autism diagnosis as a child, but the 25-year-old high school graduate is now employed and has won numerous medals for marathon running. His speed has put him among the most elite runners in the world.

Yet another accomplished runner on the autistic spectrum is Jonathan Brunot, a New York City Marathon medal winner. The handsome, profoundly autistic 19-year-old required six years to learn how to tie his shoes and has mastered only a few words. Brunot didn’t initially take to running when his mother tried to encourage it early on, but later it became a special interest. Through running, Brunot has become extremely fit and far less hyperactive, and his athletic ability has been described as “off the charts.”

Alex Bain, another award-winning autistic athlete, runs to raise awareness of and acceptance for autism. In addition to completing a full marathon, notable achievements include running from one end of Prince Edward Island to the other. Bain has a positive view of autism, and is comfortable with the fact that he is different from his friends.

Martial Arts

C.J. Moore, an autistic high school student on the less severe end of the spectrum, is a taekwondo black belt who has won eight trophies. Moore acts as a mentor for younger taekwondo students.

When he first started training, Moore didn’t believe that he could be successful in the sport, but he has since reached a level of success beyond that of most non-autistic students. Moore trains five days a week for two-and-a-half hours per session. He credits taekwondo with improving his social skills and helping him to make eye contact.

Surfing

Despite the discomfort he feels in leaving his familiar comfort zones to travel, an activity which forces him to deal with crowds and airplanes, Clay Marzo, a brilliant surfer with Asperger’s syndrome braves such journeys to obtain new surfing experiences. Previously a State Champion swimmer, Marzo shifted his intense focus to surfing and subsequently won several NSSA national surfing titles. It has been speculated that Marzo’s Asperger’s syndrome may be the reason for his unique abilities.

Marzo walked when he was just seven months old, without even crawling as an intermediate step. Graduating through a serious of hyper-focused obsessions, which included sea shells and sea life, he was once misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Inclined to shut out the world with headphones, Marzo is only completely at ease when he’s near or on the ocean. This is not uncommon among those on the autistic spectrum, many of whom find the ocean therapeutic. Considered the world’s best surfer, Marzo has appeared in a number of surf movies and supports the Surfer’s Healing Foundation, which enriches the lives of autistic children through surfing.

Other Sports

Other accomplished athletes on the autistic spectrum include:

    • 15-year-old Olympic archery champion Kyle Cramer
    • Greece Athena High School basketball coach Jason McElwain, who scored 20 points in the last four minutes of an important game
    • Medal-winning swimmer Tommy Eliopoulos, who was once afraid to go in the water
    • Major League Baseball player Jim Eisenreich who received the Royals Player of the Year award in 1989

Those with ASDs are a diverse population, and there is no particular athletic pursuit that is perfect for all those on the autistic spectrum. Informal surveys of athletic interests suggest that a wide variety of sports can potentially become special interests, though individual or solitary sports are more often favoured. And of course, as with neurotypicals (people without ASD), there are those who naturally dislike physical activities of any sort.

Further Reading

For more articles on autistic spectrum disorders, visit the main Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome page.

References:

    • Attwood, T. (2007). The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
    • AutismConnect.org. (24 July 2006). “Swimmer with Asperger’s Syndrome Wins Two Gold Medals at Special Olympics.”
    • Chew, Kristina. (12 May 2008). “Shooting Straight.” AutismVox.com.
    • Coen, Jon. (24 October 2008). “Feat of Clay.” ESPN.go.com.
    • Finn, Robin. (14 November 2008). “Autistic Teenager Runs, and Makes Strides.” The New York Times, NYTimes.com.
    • iRun.com. (January 2009). “Inspiring, Moving, Empowering: 2009 iRun Awards.”
    • McNerthney, Casey. (January 2009). “Autistic Marathon Runner Races Past Expectations.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SeattlePI.com.
    • Raia, James. (3 December 2008). “Running with Autism: The Anthony Crudale Story.” ByJamesRaia.com (originally published in Runners World Magazine).
    • Sainsbury, C. (2000). Martian in the Playground. Bristol, UK. Lucky Duck Publishing Ltd.
    • Skalski, Liz. (18 September 2008). “Taekwondo Helps Teen Become a Mentor.” The Washington Post, WashingtonPost.com.
    • Whitman, Thomas L. (2004). The Development of Autism: A Self-Regulatory Perspective. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
    • Woodson, Rick. (1 March 2006). “Autistic Athlete Redefines What Sports Is All About.” The Daily News, TDN.com.

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