I never dreamed of being a soccer mom — until I had my son. At 7, he’s got endless energy but usually directs it toward an activity like wrapping himself in bubble wrap and having the dog chase him around the living room. After another long winter in quarantine, I observed him and my sagging couch cushions and thought, “Somebody get this kid to a gym.”

I’ve hesitated to enroll him in group sports because he is on the spectrum, and while he loves social situations, he often struggles with waiting, taking turns, and following directions. He freestyles his own rules for tag, and soccer is a little more complicated. But it turns out that regular physical activity has a lot more to offer him than just a more constructive way to burn off his after-school energy. 

The Benefits of Physical Activity

“The data is overwhelming that exercise improves almost all aspects of development, as well as anxiety, attentional problems, mood, social and emotional regulation, and quality of life,” says Wendy Ross, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and director for the center for autism & neurodiversity at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia. The effects of physical activity have been particularly well-studied in children with autism because they are more likely to have low tone and are at a higher risk for obesity. 

But the really surprising thing is that exercise doesn’t just improve kids’ metabolic markers. It impacts social, mental, and emotional health as well. Several large meta-analyses and systematic reviews back this up. 

“Some of the benefits — for example, improved motor skills, fitness, and social skills — are especially important for kids with ASD as they may have deficits or delays in these domains,” says Sean Healy, PhD, an associate professor at Dublin City University in Ireland. Healy is one of the authors of a meta-analysis of 29 studies published in Autism Research in 2018 that found that physical interventions had a moderate to large improvement in skills from endurance to social functioning.

The skills that regular physical activity has been shown to help develop in children with ASD include:

  • Better attention
  • Improved organization
  • Elevated mood
  • Enhanced social and emotional regulation
  • Better quality of life
  • Improved social skills
  • Increased self-confidence 
  • Better engagement
  • Improved endurance
  • Lower anxiety 

Although research has not yet borne out exactly how and why exercise affects all these areas, one of the likely reasons is that movement, especially aerobic movement, releases neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, which have been shown to improve mood and wellbeing, according to Ross. 

Healy recommends at least one hour of physical activity a day for all kids, including those with ASD. “All movement is good,” he says, “However, organized sports may be particularly beneficial for developing social skills and developing patterns of physical activity that may last a lifetime.” 

How to Find the Right Fit for Your Child 

Sounds good, but where do you start? Every kid is different in terms of their aptitudes and interests, so consider those when choosing a sport. “I like to say that if you know one kid with ASD, you only know one,” says Ross. Research may show great results with swimming, but if your child is afraid of water, that doesn’t matter. 

“The first thing I would consider as a parent is what my child enjoys, and the second most important thing is where their skillset is now and where they would be expected to be on a team,” says Sarah Lewis, M.Ed., BCBA, a behavior analyst for Elemy. “Do they struggle in the classroom to understand when the teacher speaks to everyone? Do they have trouble taking turns? Specific sensory issues?”

A BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) can help you figure out how your child’s skills may translate (or not) to a team setting, and if the coach can’t meet them where they are, private lessons offer a one-on-one opportunity for your child to be active and acquire necessary skills.

Some other important factors to consider:

  • Physical ability. Some sports, like golf, require more fine motor skills, while others, like gymnastics, may focus on balance. Similarly, hockey can be pretty fast-paced, while baseball is more measured. If your child isn’t quite there yet, no need to force it. 
  • Attention. Certain sports require endurance, so consider whether your child will hang in there for a long, slow game like baseball.
  • Social skills. Team sports are called that for a reason, but some require more teamwork than others. Volleyball, for instance, is pretty collaborative and requires constant communication with teammates, but in tennis, you can be part of a team but operate on your own most of the time. 
  • Interests. Obviously, it helps if your kid has a passion for the activity. Don’t be afraid to try different sports until you find one that really resonates.
  • Longevity. Team sports can sometimes be an investment, and in more ways than one. If one of your goals is social connections, you may want to think about an activity that can grow with your child, so they get a few years (or more) out of it. 

Pre-Season Is Prep Season

Your work as a parent isn’t done once you’ve found an activity that fits. “Team sports can be more challenging due to the social aspect,” says Ross. “To decrease the pressure, there are a lot of teams specifically for kids with neurodiversity.” 

In an ideal world, Healy says, all group sports programs would be inclusive. But since they’re not, he thinks a program tailored to the needs of neurodivergent children can be a good fit, although preferably as a stepping stone to more inclusive programs. 

If such a program is available to you, whether you enroll your child in it or choose to join a team with neurotypical children is again largely dependent on your specific child. There might be less pressure to win or less of an emphasis on communication in a specialized team, something to consider if your child struggles in any of those areas.

Then again, if your child with ASD has a sibling or friend on a team, you might prefer that they join together. “Neurotypical kids usually realize they’re there to support the other kids,” says Ross. “In my experience, unless the kid has severe impairments, trying them in a mainstream team seems to work well.” 

She recommends reaching out to the coach before the season to discuss any special considerations regarding your child playing on the team. “I always believe in frontloading experiences for success rather than troubleshooting challenges after they come up,” Ross says. “And you don’t want to put your child in a situation where they’re going to be unwanted or unappreciated.”

This can also be a good time to inquire about any special accommodations that can be made, says Lewis. “I’ve seen some places that actually give the student a 1:1 helper the entire time they’re at soccer lessons or day camp,” she says. “It’s like an IEP:  If you don’t ask, you won’t get it.” If your community doesn’t have those kinds of resources, consider volunteering for the role. “It’s a great way to bond with your kid,” Lewis says. 

It can also help to give your kiddo an idea of what to expect if this is their first time doing this activity or first time doing it in a group setting. Visual storyboards can be a great way to “rehearse” together at home, set expectations for behavior, and answer any questions your kid has. It’s also great to practice any skills needed for the activity at home, for instance, kicking the soccer ball around the backyard or wearing shin guards after school to get used to them. 

As your child attends practices and games, it will give them opportunities to learn other valuable lessons. “Sports seems like a great metaphor for what we do,” says Ross. “ Working together, practicing to get better at something, taking a loss.”  

Talking to your kid about these things can help them get better at their sport and all the skills it requires, including good sportsmanship. “It’s okay to help your child if you see something that needs to be done or done differently,” says Lewis. “It’s also important for them to know that if they don’t want to do something, they can advocate for themselves.” That includes quitting the team if it simply isn’t a good fit. “Quitting is okay,” Lewis says. But make sure you get back out there and join another activity to reap all the benefits.

The bottom line is exercise is really important, particularly for children with ASD. And they can start anytime. “If you start earlier, there tends to be a higher staff-to-player ratio, and the gap between your child and their peers is usually smaller,” Lewis says. “They will grow with the sport.”