20 sports for children with autism to try

What sport is best for children with autism to try is a common question. Physical activity is an important part of being healthy. It builds aerobic fitness, helps maintain healthy weight, strengthens muscles, balance and coordination, and uses up all that endless energy that kids have. Physical activity also contributes to a sensory diet – giving sensory input to kids such as pressure, spinning, movement, swinging, bouncing and other whole body movements. But children with autism can struggle with traditional team sports. I remember one time our son was trying to play backyard cricket with his cousins. He didn’t understand the rules, couldn’t negotiate the social interaction with others, and wasn’t coordinated enough to throw and catch. He kept running in the way and was playing his own game of collecting and stock piling balls, much to the annoyance of his cousins.

We’ve collated 20 exercises that are not team sports. They can be done individually with minimal interaction with others, so confusing and stressful social rules and interactions are removed from the equation. They are both indoor and outdoor activities. Yet, they still build coordination, physical health, and healthy habits in activity. Let’s see if we can find the best sport for children with autism.

1. Online Brain Breaks

There are so many online exercise videos tailored to kids that really get their heart rate up. It’s a good exercise for hot days or rainy days when you’re stuck inside but really need to get the wiggles out. Most of these have themes for all the current interests of kids, from Bluey to dinosaurs, Disney movies, Halloween, Christmas and everything in between.

Our kids particularly like:

  • Cosmic Kids Yoga
  • Brain Breaks for kids that include exercise, chases, dance and freeze and jump battles
  • Just Dance videos or video tutorials on dance moves

2. Active Gaming

Again, if you’re stuck inside or if your kids are obsessed with gaming, try active gaming that gets your kids swinging their arms and moving their feet rather than just sitting there. Some good active gaming options include

  • Dance games such as Just Dance on the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Switch, Xbox or Playstation or Dance Central.
  • Sports such as Wii Sports, Switch Sports, Jump rope, Zumba
  • Pokemon Go (ok, this one actually takes you outside, but it’s still a game)

3. Gymnastics

There’s something sensory about moving your body through the air. Gymnastics helps develop balance, coordination and strength in a fun way. It also is appealing to sensory seeking kids who like jumping, swinging, rolling around and other full body movements.

4. Jogging or walking

This is probably the most accessible, cheapest and easiest form of exercise. All you have to do is put on shoes and walk around the block. Our kids will walk for a reasonably long time (well, about 5 km for someone aged 7 year old) as long as there are distractions and incentives.

Little treats or snacks hidden in your pockets can work wonders for getting kids to keep moving. Having a destination in mind, or going on a ‘playground crawl’ where you walk from one playground to the next in a big loop can help break up a big journey. Even if it’s raining, put on rain jackets and big umbrellas and go puddle jumping for an adventure. We also play games like doing nature surveys (how many birds can you see, how many types of fungus can you find, can you find flowers?) and take photos of what we see (so we don’t disturb the natural environment).

We find that outside walking is more engaging than indoors walking, like walking from one end of a shopping mall to the other. Even though shopping malls have lots of things to look at, they are noisy, flat and even surfaced, have too bright lights, and too many people. Having to navigate hills, uneven surfaces and having nature around seems to be more engaging, and helps the ‘flat foot’ type walking of many autistic kids.

bike riding is a great sport for children with autism
Photo by Philipp M on Pexels.com

5. Bike Riding or BMX

While it took forever for our kids to be brave and coordinated enough to ride bikes without training wheels, once on two wheels bike riding became a favourite past-time. Find bike paths off road so you don’t need to navigate cars and busy roads and cruise around. We manage to cover reasonable distances (12km) on push bike with a 10 year old. We have friends with electric bikes that will tow their kid behind them when they get tired in order to cover greater distances.

If your child is a little more adventurous, they might like BMX or Mountain Bike riding. We find our kids are very risk averse, and avoid pain or injuries (with massive over-reaction if there is an injury) so we stick to push bikes on roads.

6. Circus sports

Circus sports or acrobatics are great for a sensory diet. There are circus schools that help build skills in the circus arts, including strength building, balance building, hand-eye coordination and skills in swinging, jumping and climbing.

7. Martial Arts

A friend signed up her son with ADHD to Judo (although there are plenty of other martial arts too) and said it was the best thing. It built his confidence, discipline, and body awareness. Martial arts progress individually at your own pace, and there are clear steps to progression.

8. Playground play

Playground play is great for building a sensory diet. There’s swinging, sliding, climbing, imaginary play, crawling. All great whole body movements that provide lots of sensory input to a child that needs it. Most playground are outdoors, have fences (and if you’re lucky, toilets nearby too). Playgrounds can also be soothing. Swinging can be very relaxing, especially on a reclining or netted swing that allows lying down. Our son finds these swings great at calming him down, making him feel relaxed and soothed. A word of caution about sensory seekers – sometimes it’s hard to stop a sensory input even when it makes them feel sick. Spinning wheels, and round-abouts provide lots of sensory input but after a short while make our son feel nauseous. Numerous times he hasn’t been able to stop and ends up walking out of the playground feeling very sick.

9. Swimming

Swimming lessons often have autism friendly options with supportive instructors, smaller classes and sensory sensitivity. While it look our kids a long time before they were comfortable to even put their head under water, they now have lots of water confidence. Swimming is an individual pursuit, and is a super important life skill in a hot climate like Australia. It helps build coordination, is often calming being in the buoyant water, and builds skills in breathing and lung capacity. Most swimming lessons are based on skill level, so kids can progress at their own pace once they’ve achieved the required skills. This makes it a great sport for children with autism who often develop their physical skills more slowly.

10. Rock climbing

Rock climbing or bouldering is an individual recreational activity. It builds coordination, body awareness and strength (not just upper body!). Many playgrounds feature climbing walls for kids, but there are also indoor facilities that have large walls and safety equipment for serious climbing.

11. Lifting weights

Weight lifting is really empowering. While a solo sport, it’s good to have a spotter or instructor so you develop good technique and don’t lift beyond your capacity. It helps build muscle – not just upper body but legs and core too. Weight lifting can be good for kids that need to build their core, have weak muscle tone, or have stocky statures that would benefit from body positivity.

12. Roller skating

Roller skating can be an indoor or outdoor activity. Many councils have indoor skating rinks that open during school holidays and may even be home based for roller derby clubs and competitions. This activity is solo, and has a good level of personal challenge to get the balance right. However, there are plenty of supports to build up to independent balance, including safety gear and guard rails. Best yet, you can pop on skates and start riding on the footpath right outside so it’s easily accessible. Finding a quiet local tennis court, outdoor basketball court, empty carpark or other concrete surface can also be a good practice ground.

13. Scooter or skate boarding

If roller skating requires too much balance, scooters (3 wheeled or 2, depending on how much balance support is needed) or skate boards might be more up your alley. Many councils have skate parks, pump tracks or BMX tracks that can be used with scooters or skateboards. While there are competitions (with skate boarding debuting in the 2020 Olympics), these sports can also be done individually on a recreational level. There are skate board instructors that can help with techniques and doing tricks safely, and can be outdoors or indoors so it’s all weather.

14. Trampolining

A sensory diet often features bouncing. And if you’re an adult who’s been dragged by their kids to a Bounce Trampolining Centre, you know how exhausting it is. It’s a great individual sport or recreational activity, and there’s no pressure to do more that you’re comfortable with. Yet, there’s a high ceiling of what’s possible if you take it up competitively or as a sport.

15. Cheer leading

A friend with a daughter with autism highly recommends cheer leading. Find a club near you. It’s not a traditional sport in Australia, but makes a good sport for children with autism.

16. Cross Country or Hiking

More nature, uneven surfaces, being outdoors. Hiking is great fun and a challenge. Our kids, even when younger, would complete an 8km hard walk up steep surfaces with the only incentive of an icecream up the top. During COVID-19 lockdowns we did lots of bush walking and hiking as that was one of the only available and safest recreational activities.

17. Orienteering or Geocaching

Orienteering adds a spin to outdoor hiking with an added challenge of using a compass and looking for orienteering points on a course. Geo-caching is another related activity where you have to find a hidden treasure. While many orienteering and geocaching activities do require a subscription or payment, there are usually some free options around that may need an app.

18. Bowling

Bowling is often promoted as a great sport for children with autism. I’m not sure about this one – it’s indoors, loud, has funny shoes, and can be really frustrating when the ball doesn’t do what you want it to do. But I’ll let you decide if it works for you!

19. Gardening

While not a traditional sport, gardening can be a very physical activity. Digging, making holes, carting a wheelbarrow around, shoveling loads of dirt or compost. These big pushing body movements are great for a sensory diet, and can help your child feel useful by contributing to the garden. As a bonus, you can pretend that you’re in Minecraft digging, or in a Zelda game attacking with a pick. So gardening is a game, sensory input and sport for children with autism, all in one!

20. Rowing

Rowing doesn’t require too much coordination, but definitely uses muscles in all the body. You can often find rowing type equipment at outdoor exercise stations in parks or playgrounds. Set a timer to see how many strokes can be done in 30 seconds, or see how long it takes to row 500 m before resting.

Conclusion – finding sports for children with autism

If the aim is to participate in recreation without social interactions that might cause stress, golf might sound like a great option. You can do it on your own, it involves lots of walking and is outdoors. However, golf is a very frustrating sport and requires lots of personal regulation and positive self talk. It may not be the best option if your child has a tendency to get frustrated quickly, be hard on themselves, or respond badly to mistakes. And this advice comes from a regular golfer who is an adult but gets highly frustrated with himself and the game when he plays.

Finding the best sport for children with autism that interests them, fits their sensory profile, doesn’t stress them out with complex social interactions can be tricky. But it’s important for their physical health and fitness now and in the future.

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