Should Autistic children play Team or Individual Sports?

It is the time of year as the Fall rolls around and after the “Back to School” rush is over, that many family’s begin to plan the after school activities for the year. The question to get kids involved in sports or other events is a hard one.  Many experts suggest to try many things to see which ones the kids like and do well in.  But the biggest, and most important piece, is really just keeping active, healthy and social while also limiting the TV and computer time.  The next question parents seem to have is to do team sports or individual ones.

Being a parent of a special needs child is especially stressful when considering these questions, as the child’s developmental and physical issues may dictate what options may be available for the child, as well as which ones allow them to be successful.

Some children with autism may have challenges in the areas of physical coordination, social and verbal communication, and lack the ability to read non-verbal social cues which makes organized sports confusing, humiliating and frustrating at times. Because of these issues, some kids seem to have difficulty working in groups, focusing and playing these team sports. For the parents of a special needs child, the outcomes and feelings are equally as frustrating to watch and experience.

An alternative option for some autistic and special needs children are more individual sports like: swimming, horseback riding, hiking, skiing, track and field, bowling, or martial arts.  These type of activities allow them to focus on their own strengths and have fun.  Some of these individual ones, like swimming and track, also have an element of being on a team to help with social skills but still concentrating on personal effort.

For my son who is high-functioning autistic, organized team sports really didn’t work.  Most of the usual team sports; like soccer, football, baseball, basketball and such, were not really an option.  All of these team sports naturally start out with coaches teaching the basic skills and having the players line up to practice these basic skills.  With this approach there is a lot of waiting around in lines, watching and learning which can be difficult for those with attention issues.

For my son, standing in line waiting was not easy and led to his fooling around and distracting other kids.  As well, due to his late social development we didn’t venture into these sports until he was a little older.  By then other kids who started sports earlier were much more athletic, competitive, wanted to win and didn’t have the patience to deal with a special needs awkward kid.

We also tried programs like Special Olympics and more focused developmental needs leagues, but found they were geared for more physically or mentally challenged children. We couldn’t find much for high-functioning autistic kids who were caught in the middle between these leagues and full organized team sports.

So we turned to more individual sports like skiing, biking, track/running and swimming.  These allowed him to stay active and compete against himself while also being in a “team” setting with other kids doing the same.   We began to appreciate and celebrate his individual skills and successes in their own right.

Another concern that special need parents have with team sports, is that in our society team sports are a social outlet for the kids as well as parents. Not being involved in these organized team sports, seems to leave both the kids and parents on the fringe of social circles and can feel alienated at school or community events when others’ conversations revolve around their common sports activities. Other kids may talk about their teams and games, and the special needs kids feel left out as they can’t join in.  Same with parents as others socialize during these team events with shared stories and the special needs parents can’t participate in these conversations.

However, after a while, just like with finding individual sports, you begin to seek out and actively pursue the parents of other special needs kids who can understand your experiences.

In the end, the key goal is finding something that the kids enjoy and can be successful at, as well as get exercise and can continue to build on their skills and confidence.

Below are a few other references from parents expressing their similar experience and concerns with Team vs. Individual sports.

Autism, Developmental Disabilities, Father's Perspective, Raising a Child with A Disability