If you are a parent of a kid with Asperger’s (an Aspie), you know how painful participation in sports can be for them — and for you. One exasperated dad told me, “My kid does fine when it’s just the two of us practicing baseball in the backyard. But as soon as other kids are involved, he freezes. He just stands there!” A mom lamented, “My daughter so wants to join in with the other kids but she is always picked last for a team. It breaks my heart.” Still another mom told me, “I can’t get my son to go out to play with the other kids on the block. I know he wants to. I know he is lonesome. But the other kids always play games that involve rules he doesn’t understand.”
The problem is not that a child with Asperger’s isn’t interested in sports and play. The problem is not that these kids don’t like running around and playing games like other kids. The problem is that the Asperger’s gets in the way — big time.
The following traits are common among kids on the spectrum. Because they are common doesn’t make them any less painful — for child and parent alike:
It’s not at all unusual for a kid with Asperger’s to be uncoordinated or clumsy. They often bump into things and trip over their own feet. They often drop things. That clumsiness makes it very challenging to participate in most team sports.
Anxiety comes with Asperger’s. A kid who is anxious often can’t perform well when others are watching. A kid who is anxious often gets more focused on the anxiety than on the task at hand. The anxiety feels so bad that the child gives up.
- Sensory overload.
Think about it. During team play, people are coming at us from all directions. There is a lot of noise from the crowd. Teammates may be shouting out encouragement and directions. The lights may be bright. The uniform may be scratchy. This is Aspie hell.
- Social deficits.
Many kids with Asperger’s are socially awkward. They may have the best of intentions, but they may alienate other kids on the team by a need to be right, by being easily upset or by not knowing how to interact with the rest of the team, the coach, and onlookers.
The solution lies in individual sports. As one relieved mom told me, “Swim team is a godsend. All my son has to remember is to dive in at the signal and go as fast as he can to the other end of the pool. He’s good too. The other kids accept his social blunders because he helps the team score.”
She’s right. She stumbled on a sport that lets him succeed. He loves it and she loves that he is getting needed exercise and learning to be with others at his own pace and readiness.
Like swim team, there are many individual sports that let kids be part of a team without being one of the gang. The list is long. You can probably think of even more. Rather than lament what a child can’t do, help him or her explore these options. One of them may become one of your Asperger’s child’s special interests.
Track events: Shot-put, javelin,
pole vaulting, hurdles, etc.
Individual sports work because:
- There is less sensory overload.
Participation doesn’t require tracking multiple stimuli. The child doesn’t have to keep track of rules, the roles of teammates, what to do with a ball, or what he or she is supposed to do next.
- Individual sports are orderly.
What is expected is logical and predictable. The goal is clear and unambiguous. In sports like diving, track or bowling, the primary focus is on improving one’s own performance, even when that performance helps a team score.
- The child can practice alone.
Individual sports can be practiced and practiced and practiced by oneself. This is Aspie heaven. There is no one to criticize, no one to displease, no one to interfere. Even when others are practicing at the same time, it’s an instance of being together alone.
- Interaction with others is less demanding.
Individual sports often attract others who like to concentrate on the task at hand as much or more than on the social aspects of participation. With sports that involve a team of individuals (swim team or track, for example) team members are often supportive of individuals achieving a “personal best.” Track teams are famous for cheering each other on to beating their own time.
- They get a child moving.
Every child needs exercise to build a strong body and to discharge pent-up energy. Individual sports can get your Aspie child moving. Many activities can also get your child outdoors for needed fresh air and a change of pace from other special interests (like accumulating knowledge, video games or organizing collections) that keep them indoors.
- They improve coordination.
Being involved in an individual sport can have a wonderful and unintended consequence: Repetition increases general body awareness and improves coordination. One young man tells me he is very glad he became an ice dancer while a teen. By doing the basic moves over and over and over, he says he essentially engaged in almost daily physical therapy. The result is more coordination, fewer clumsy incidents, and more self-confidence. This same young man went on to become a competitive ballroom dancer. He was able to move from a solitary sport to one involving one other person who is as obsessed with going for the gold as he is.
If you are the parent of an Aspie, don’t give up on sports. Redirect your child to sports where he or she can be successful. Being physically active reduces anxiety, increases body awareness and provides a way for a child to be around other kids that is manageable. Mastering a skill and moving up levels or improving one’s time or scores can result in more physical competence and self-confidence.