If you know me you will be confused about the topic of this article. Rafi wants to talk about sports? That is not a topic of interest for him. He hasn’t been on an organized sports team since the beginning of fifth grade. So why am I writing about this topic? Because I think it is an interesting topic to explore. I have had a mostly distant relationship with sports but for many autistic people, sports are beneficial. So I am going to use this blog to explore the many Autistic perspectives on sports.
I have never been an athletic kid. I started playing soccer at the JCC because that is just what was done. I would participate in camp doing sports but it never appealed to me. This has stayed constant throughout my life. Then I began to morph from the scrawny kid to the big kid. I grew in height and weight and sports didn’t appeal to me. The social aspect was unappealing and when you exercise you sweat and that is a sensory challenge for me. So over time, I began avoiding sports. But I needed to stay active and that is when I started swimming.
Swimming solved the biggest challenge for me - sweat. When you swim you just don’t sweat. But a regime of school-swim-homework-sleep quickly led to autistic burnout. At the same time, I was uninterested in competing in swim meets. I decided to quit. I focused more on my school life and on maintaining a good balance. But this led to a period of trying and failing to find an alternative.
I hit a dead end. I would walk my dog but my schedule grew tighter with school and then COVID struck and everything went on ice. I then fell into a pattern of trying to walk on the peloton, not enjoying it, and giving up. I also tried weightlifting. But my schedule continued to constrain me. Between a long school day, homework, extracurricular activities, and my downtime, exercise was not my priority.
I like my stories to have a happy ending, but I still find myself at this impasse. This doesn’t mean I have given up. I found that the movement I have had working as a counselor has been great. But unfortunately, that isn’t a year-long solution. For me, exercise needs to somehow be integrated into my schedule. I have been hoping for quite a time to take the yoga tefillah elective at my school and I am walking my dog each Sunday and Saturday. I welcome other suggestions as well.
I have come to realize though that I am not the right fit for organized sports. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all Autistics aren’t.
When I was reflecting on my experience with sports I reminded myself of a line I say to every group I speak to: “All Autistics are Different”. My dilemma was that team sports didn’t work for me. I flipped that on its head. How can team sports work for others?
Socially, sports offer great opportunities for Autistic people. Autistics bond easily over common interests. And if you are on a team you have common interests. Sports Teams also build bonds and a sense of belonging. This is important for many Autistic people who can often feel alone or isolated due to social challenges. But, teams offer a structured setting in which you are surrounded by people who support you and are there for you. Sports teams also meet regularly: for practices, games, banquets, tryouts, and competitions. For many Autistic people, keeping up socially and remembering to reach out or find a good time to meet is difficult. With sports teams, this social time is already built in.
Sports teams also offer great opportunities sensory-wise. I have heard stories of Autistic players having a positive sensory reaction to a ball, glove, or even just the sensation of moving. Speaking of, this is also a great way to stim. Autistic people tend to stim to release energy, concentrate, or reorient themselves. The movement of sports offers a great opportunity for this.
In terms of motor skills, sports are a great way to improve these skills. As a kid, one of the things I would need to practice in my Occupational Therapy would be throwing a ball or catching a ball. These are basic skills for many sports. Clinics and classes can help players develop these skills.
One of the many things that my Aunt (Orlee Krass) does in the inclusion realm is helping organize a neurodiversity inclusion program at her children’s cheer gym (Rise Athletics). Like many cheer gyms across the country, Rise offers a cheerabilities program. It can come in a variety of formats and it’s important to note that not all cheer gyms offer all of the options listed below. First, there are open gym clinics that a gym can offer where athletes are given support and the opportunity to improve their skills. Then there is a cheerabilities team that moves at a different pace than their neurotypical teams. The Athletes on this team receive various supports as needed and have a less intense performance schedule compared to other teams. There are also teams where neurodiverse and neurotypical athletes can be on a team together. And of course, there is always the option for neurodiverse athletes to try out for a neurotypical team. These teams are not easy. There are regular competitions and the commitment level is much higher than the previous options. Ultimately each neurodiverse athlete and their family will work with the gym to figure out the best fit for them. The ultimate goal is to find an approach to include these athletes. The Cheerabilities program is still new at the Rise gym and will adapt and change as time goes on. But, the gym is optimistic. There are many benefits to this program.
My aunt agrees with the points I made before about the benefits of sports for neurodiverse people. She added one more that I found interesting. Many Autistic people can have sedentary lifestyles. Due to Autistic burnout or a quiet social life, it can be a bad habit to not try something new, to not go anywhere. Therefore, Autistic people have to be active in moving around and making sure they keep themselves physically fit. I unfortunately have fallen into this pattern. And while cheer is not my solution as I have mentioned before I continue to look for my personal solution and to advocate for opportunities for other Autistics whether that be a team sport or otherwise.