Participation in individual sports, such as martial arts and track and field, can have many benefits for children with autism, according to one neurologist. Children gain confidence and better awareness of their bodies, which can lead to improved communication skills.
Although traditional team sports often are not a good fit for children with autism, individual athletic activities can build the skills and confidence of autistic kids, according to Dr. Anthony G. Alessi, chief of neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, Connecticut, and a physician in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich. Introducing autistic children to sports could lead to better communication skills, Alessi says.
Dr. Anthony G. Alessi
Education World:What are the benefits to autistic children of playing sports?
Dr. Anthony G. Alessi: Among the benefits of sports participation for autistic children are improved coordination and body awareness. Dedication to improving a particular athletic skill will boost confidence, and that supports other therapies. I believe the goal of any therapy in autism is to find an effective channel for communication. Although computers and drawing might be effective channels for many children with autism, sports might be the channel for others. I believe there are some truly gifted athletes in the community of children with autism; we just have to figure out how to reach them.
EW: What are the best sports for children with autism, and why?
Alessi: Team sports generally are not recommended because participation relies so heavily on communication with teammates. The best sports for children with autism include track and field, because running and throwing are very basic activities that require little verbal skill; swimming, because the symmetry and the swim stroke improve body awareness and propulsion through the water is among the most soothing activities from the standpoint of sound and tactile sensation. A competitive element can be introduced, if desired.
Other beneficial sports are horseback riding, which is perfect for children who might have associated motor deficits prohibiting them from other sports; and aspects of basketball, because the repetitive act of shooting baskets is an activity with immediate gratification. Such individual shooting games as H-0-R-S-E or Around the World also provide fun competition. In addition, the martial arts are an outstanding way to improve balance and coordination.
EW: How should coaches explain to other team participants that autistic children might respond differently?
Alessi: Any explanation on the part of coaches will depend on the individual child involved and his or her abilities.
EW: What can schools do to make it easier for autistic children to participate in sports?
Alessi: Schools can make it easier by creating an environment conducive to sports participation. Typically loud gyms where large groups of students are pushing and shoving will not work for a child with autism. Outdoor, single-task sports are best.
EW: How can classroom teachers use this information about autistic children and sports participation?
Alessi: The best way for classroom teachers to explore the aspect of athletic activity in children with autism is to try different games and judge the childs reaction. The simple act of kicking a ball at a goal or other target, throwing a horseshoe or shooting a basketball might indicate an affinity for the activity and lead to more involvement.
EW: Why might some parents be reluctant to let their autistic child play sports?
Alessi: I believe the greatest reluctance on the part of parents stems from fear of the child getting injured, and a fear of failure.
EW: What, if any, are the drawbacks to autistic children participating in sports?
Alessi: The only drawbacks I see could occur if children with autism become involved in team sports in which they might be doomed to failure, and not able to reap the benefits of athletic participation.
This e-interview with Dr. Anthony G. Alessi is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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