Autism is a complex disability that causes developmental delays within social interaction and communication. Symptoms generally include problems with communication both verbal and non-verbal, problems with social interaction, and routine and or repetitive behaviors, and generally appear around 18 months.
While it is commonly referred to as autism, it is important to understand that this disorder is actually autism spectrum disorder. Meaning that children and adults can fall anywhere on the spectrum meaning they can have severe delays across all developmental abilities, mild and be very high functioning or anywhere in between.
For more information on autism spectrum disorder see the National Institute of Health
As stated above one of the areas affected are social interaction, which includes emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation. It can be difficult for children on the spectrum then to interact socially with others. This can not only affect their everyday life at day care, with siblings, and school, it can also affect playing an organized sport. Where a child falls on the spectrum is going to determine how well the child can adapt in an organized sport, such as basketball, soccer or baseball.
A local expert Kristie Giaimo, MSW, says that “team sports tend to be difficult for kids (autistic) to deal with socially, individual sports tend to be better.” Giaimo says that depending on where a child falls on the spectrum they may or may not know socially if they fit in. The higher functioning a child is the more they may realize they aren’t “playing” as well as the other members of the team. On the other hand the lower functioning a child is they may not understand or care enough to know they aren’t “playing” as well as the rest of the team.
In both cases the parent is going to feel frustration. If a child knows they aren’t playing well, even if they are playing the best they can, their self-esteem is going to drop and their frustration will increase, which in turn will increase the frustration of the parent. Not because their child isn’t excelling but because they may not know how to help their child. While athletics are generally a good way for children to develop self-confidence, for autistic children, it may need to be done on an individual level instead of a team sport.
For children who are at the lower end of the spectrum and are happy to just be on the team, not really understanding how they measure up against the other kids, this scenario may be even more frustrating for the parent rather than the child. The parent may be more concerned with how their child is measuring up, what other parents are thinking, or even what the other kids are thinking. Giaimo says that “if a child doesn’t excel, parents may get frustrated.” The frustration of the parent may be transferred to the child indirectly, lowering the self-esteem of the child.
Kristie Giaimo says ways to ensure that your child is doing the best they can and keeping their self-esteem high is to ask yourself and your child what they enjoy. Giaimo says “Bottom line whatever excites them they will do better at it.” “Finding something that may be more suited to the child’s interest will increase the chances that the child will enjoy it and more likely excel at it.” An example may be if your child is into space or bugs, maybe a membership to the Buffalo Museum of Science is an alternative. If your child is into music, maybe music lessons are an option. If you still want your child to do something alethic you aren’t alone, in fact a NY Times article states:
Researchers say the value of sports for autistic children is well documented but often overlooked. Studies dating back to the 1980’s have found that brisk physical activity increases attention span and reduces repetitive behaviors.
But the catch is that the exercise must be moderate to vigorous. One early study of autistic children found that 15 minutes of jogging “was always followed by reductions in stereotyped behaviors” such as hand-flapping and rocking. But 15 minutes of playing alone with a ball, considered mild exercise, had “little or no influence” on behaviors.
With research saying that being athletic can be great for autistic kids, parents there is hope that you will find something for your child that they can excel at. An article by Susan Moffitt on Autism Key reports that there is a trend showing that martial arts programs are helping kids on every part of the spectrum.
A 2010 research project conducted by the University of Wisconsin physical therapy department confirmed what parents were already reporting — in the course of learning martial arts, children with autism essentially came out of their shells and grew more socially assertive and cooperative. They exhibited better balance and motor coordination, eye contact improved and play skills were further developed. Greater self-esteem was also reported, with the added bonus of these kids being able to defend themselves, if need be.
Martial arts help adults and children. You can find a link to programs in Erie & Niagara County and In the Southern Tier. The best part is you can do it as a family.
Kristie Giaimo says that the two biggest tips to ask yourself self are “Do they like it?” and “Are they participating because you want them to or because their siblings are?”
Do what you feel is best for your child, but the best piece of advice is to make sure that your child enjoys the activity. If your child enjoys the activity, their confidence and enjoyment should be contagious. Don’t focus on what your child is or isn’t doing; simply be happy that your child is enjoying an activity.
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