Sports & Special Needs

Hello everyone! I hope all of you are doing well and staying safe during this pandemic time period. After writing my previous post about how Anjali learned to ride her bicycle, and discussing in that post how a routine of physical exercise has benefitted her greatly, I started wondering about the general effects of sports and fitness for all children with Autism and other special needs. In what ways, from a medical and sensory perspective, do sports benefit a special needs child? What examples are there of professional athletes who’ve made a career in sports while having special needs conditions? In order for these questions to be answered, and to satisfy my curiosity, I set out to research the topic. Therefore, let’s dive into the answers that I found!

As I stated earlier, I noted in my previous post that Anjali’s routine of going cycling each day has greatly benefitted her sensory needs and helped her release energy, thus improving her general focus and behaviour throughout the day. However, I wondered if these benefits of physical exercise are agreed upon by the general scientific community that’s researched on this topic. The answer: yes it is! Scientific research has shown that sports benefit for special needs children in multiple ways. This is supported by the conclusions determined by the research team of the University of Delaware, who conducted a “meta-analysis of 29 studies looking at the benefits of exercise among more than a thousand young people on the autism spectrum.” The head researcher states that sports have a positive effect on youth individuals with Autism, since physical exercise improves “motor skills, skill-related fitness, social functioning and muscular strength and endurance.” A fine example of sports satisfying a special needs child’s sensory would be swimming, since swimming “provides a soothing sensory input,” as stated in a VeryWell Health article. This was a major reason for us to involve Anjali with swimming, and it is quite clear how sports can play a key role in improving the motor skills and sensory needs of a special needs child. 

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Here’s a graphic that summarizes some great sports for children with Autism! (image link)

In my opinion, perhaps the best benefit that sports can provide to special needs children isn’t the obvious lifestyle of fitness that is promoted through sports, but the opportunities for social interactions. This is especially true in a team sports setting. This ideology is supported by the research team from the University of Delaware, since they also concluded that “physical activity programs can provide a fun, safe setting for interacting with other children. In other words, they can offer excellent opportunities for practicing social skills.”  Therefore, with the benefits that sports for specials need children being apparent, one might ask the question about if there have been individuals with special needs who’ve pursued sports all the way to the professional level? The simple answer: yes! There are multiple great role models from the special needs community who’ve been successful in the highest level of their sport. Examples include Jim Eisenreich, a 15 year Major League Baseball pitcher and World Series champion, who was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome.

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Image of Jim Eisenreich (link for image)

A major reason for an increase of professional athletes with special needs is the growing acceptance of teams providing accommodations for players. This is explained by a contributor to Sports Illustrated, who states that  “‘There’s been a big change in the autism community in how we look at sports . . . It’s gone from something we didn’t even think about to: Sure, you deserve to play if you want. We can figure out ways to accommodate you.’” Overall, it’s very clear that children with special needs not only greatly benefit from sports, but have a limitless ceiling when it comes pursuing sports as a career. For these reasons, I believe the community of special needs children need to be exposed to sports at a growing rate in the future. 

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