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How Do I Choose a Sport for my Child with Special Needs?


Things to consider before registering for an activity

Are you the parent of a child with special needs? Since it seems like the majority of kids are enrolled in at least one sport these days, you may be wondering what type of activity would best fit your child’s unique set of abilities. 

There are so many great reasons to get your child with special needs involved in an organized sport. Children need exercise just as much as adults do. Participation in an activity may help your child develop muscle tone and coordination, increase core strength, and improve overall fitness. All kids benefit from the camaraderie and fun of participating in a sport with peers. Consider these and any other goals you have for your child when considering a sport.

Ideas for exploring different activities:

  • Ask your child’s OT or PT for suggestions and recommendations.  Since these professionals understand your child’s unique mix of abilities, they can help clarify your goals and options.
  • Expose your child to a variety of different sporting events, either in person or on TV. Attend a baseball game or a swim meet. Watch gymnastics or soccer on TV. See what sparks your child’s interests.
  • Ask a local league or studio/dojo if you and your child can observe a class or a practice. 
  • Find a short camp (1 week or less) to “test drive” an activity. 
  • Check out leagues or groups that specifically serve children with special needs. For example, The Miracle League is a worldwide organization that helps kids participate in baseball. See www.miracleleague.net for more information.

Types of Activities:

I like to think of organized sports in two categories: team sports and individual sports practiced in a group setting. Many children who have autism or other intellectual disabilities do best with an individual sport that is done in the company of others. Examples of these types of activities include martial arts, swimming, and gymnastics. Team sports require leveraging the power of teamwork to perform the activity, and include sports like soccer, basketball, baseball, hockey, and many others. 

Children with physical challenges can participate in both types of sports, with accommodations. No matter what your child’s unique mix of abilities is, it’s always best to have an open, honest discussion with the coach or leader before beginning the activity. 

My personal experiences:

I am a mother of four children, two of whom are on the Autism Spectrum. We tried several different activities before finding the right fit for my kids with special needs. Today those activities are crucial to their physical development and their sense of identity. Though not everything we tried was a success, I still see the value in trying and learning, and I want my kids to understand this as well.

When my son was young, and before we knew he was “on the Spectrum,” we tried soccer and basketball in organized leagues. Thankfully, both teams were non-competitive and had kind adult coaches. In both sports, my son ended up running around but not really playing. He never grasped how or why to kick/pass the ball to a teammate. We ended his participation in each of these sports after one season. We never viewed our experiences as a waste of time or a failure; instead we grew in our understanding of our son’s abilities.

My daughter was diagnosed at age 2 with classic autism and we delayed trying any sports until after age 5. The first activity we tried was a pre-school level ballet class. Sometimes she was able to follow the instructor and participate in the class; other times she either ran around the room or had a meltdown. Ultimately, we withdrew her from the class before the recital because we thought is was likely that she’d have a meltdown on stage. While I would have loved to see her dance on stage in a cute costume (what parent wouldn’t?), I understood that this would not be the best choice for my daughter or all the other dancers. 

My son and daughter, now ages 14 and 12, have found the sporting activities they love. My son is an avid biker and hiker. He can do these activities on his own or with a group from his Boy Scout troop. My daughter takes karate classes. She has earned a first degree brown belt and is getting ready to test for black belt. 

Ultimately, I want to encourage you as a parent of a special needs child. I know it’s a challenge to find the right activity to enrich your child’s life. Don’t compare yourself or your child to others in any activity. It may take time and some trial-and-error, but in due time, you and your child will find a rewarding and enriching activity. 

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