Inclusion in Sport and Recreation: The benefits and barriers for children with Autism

by Terry F.

According to a study done by Duhaime et al. (2004), social inclusion can be defined as a measure of access to and participation in various networks of emotional, social and material support, and identifying potential domains of the elements of social quality.  It should also be pointed out that the distribution of access to leisure facilities and neighborhood services is an important indicator to evaluate the degree of social inclusion. In terms of sport and recreation, I feel that this is no different and that access is a necessary condition of inclusion.  Today, there has been a huge rise in children that have been diagnosed with Autism.  One of the biggest challenges for children with Autism is social interaction.  Getting children with Autism into sport is key here because it provides them with that platform of social inclusion to help develop social skills through a safe and playful environment.

From my experiences being a local daycare owner, children with Autism struggle with peer interaction and it has a huge effect on their ability or willingness to want to compete in any type of sport or recreation activity.  Having them as a part of a team helps the children to open up and interact with their peers.  Structure and routine are crucial for children with Autism because they thrive on it to get through their daily activities.  Being a part of a team gives them that structure and sense of belongingness to assist with their social development.  As you can see, social inclusion is extremely beneficial for these children in sport as it allows for them to be socially and physically active.

Social Inclusion Benefits

Research has demonstrated that increased aerobic exercise can significantly decrease the frequency of negative, self-stimulating behaviours that are common among individuals with Autism while not decreasing other positive behaviours (Rosenthal-Malek & Mitchell, 1997).  This highlights the fact that children with Autism have many self-stimulating behaviours like: rocking or gazing.  Being active and concentrating on an activity decreases these types of behaviours because they can focus on the recreational activity or sport.  Although the positives help decrease certain behaviours, it should be noted that certain behaviours can become barriers for inclusion in sport.  An example of this would be their concentration, muscle tone, getting over stimulated very easily, and not understanding most social cues.  Due to some of these behaviours and their unpredictability, it is very challenging for coaches and leaders to develop programming to include both children with disabilities and typical learning children.

Social Inclusion Barriers

Unfortunately, there are very limited programs that are geared towards children with disabilities.  If children are not included in regular activities, they may not have the opportunity to be able to play in a particular sport they love or recreational program they enjoy.  As an example of this here in the city of Fredericton, the only programs found on social media are one soccer team and Special Olympics NB.  This speaks volumes to the lack of access available for children with disabilities to be able to compete or play in a socially inclusive organized sport.  There could possibly be other teams, organizations, and activities; however, they are not as well promoted as other programming designed for typical learning children.  I do feel, though, that sports and activities in the area are willing to accommodate children with disabilities in the best way they can.

Lastly, I would like to touch on Lerners 5 C’s of Positive Youth Development and the importance they all play in terms of children with Autism in various different programs.  The 5 C’s are: Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, Caring and Compassion. All children, not just children with disabilities gain these 5 C’s of positive youth development through sport and recreation.  Children with Autism in particular gain connection by being with a group of peers, they gain caring and compassion when these peers become friends.  Once they learn necessary skills, they gain competence and confidence in their sport and abilities.  With the previous four alluded to above, they help develop their character and become better versions of themselves.

For further reading, check out these academic resources:

Bowers, E. P., Li, Y., Kiely, M. K., Brittian, A., Lerner, J. V., & Lerner, R. M. (2010). The five Cs model of positive youth development: A longitudinal analysis of confirmatory factor structure and measurement invariance. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39(7), 720-735.

Duhaime, G., Searles, E., Usher, P., Myers, H., & Frechette, P. (2004). Social cohesion and living conditions in the Canadian Arctic: From theory to measurement. Social Indicators Research, 66(3), 295–31

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Almerigi, J. B., Theokas, C., Phelps, E., Gestsdottir, S., Naudeau,S., … Von, E. A. (2005). Positive youth development, participation in community youth development programs, and community contributions of fifth-grade adolescents: Findings from the first wave of the 4-H study of positive youth development. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1), 17-71

Rosenthal-Malek, A., & Mitchell, S. (1997). Brief report: The effects of exercise on the self-stimulatory behaviors and positive responding of adolescents with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 27(2), 193-202.

Smith, V., & Patterson, S. Y. (2012). Getting into the game: Sports programs for kids with autism. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Yanardağ, M., Yılmaz, İ., & Aras, Ö. (2010). Approaches to the Teaching Exercise and Sports for the Children with Autism. International Journal of Early Childhood Special Education, 2(3).


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4 Responses to Inclusion in Sport and Recreation: The benefits and barriers for children with Autism

  1. jambowoods says:

    Great post Terry.

    I feel as though this topic is often overlooked in the sport and recreation environment. With a growing number of diagnoses this issue should be given much more focus.

    Although the responsibility may ultimately fall on the coaches, I think there is a greater need organizers and policy developers to start the initiative. Organizers must keep in mind that some participants require specialized attention or a different type of learning environment (be it different coaching styles, practice structures…etc).

    You brought up a great point about everyone benefiting from sport and recreation, and I completely agree. Everyone deserves the chance to play and it is our job to make certain that participants of all walks of life benefit in a positive manner.

  2. Nicola S says:

    Great post Terry!

    I completely agree that there are not enough sport and recreational programs available to children with disabilities as the population continues to grow. I have been coaching soccer for Special Olympics for 2 years now, and every year there are more and more participants. I notice how happy the sport makes them and how closely bonded the group of athletes has become over the last couple years. It gives them a chance to experience the benefits of sports physically and socially. The comment you made that, “Being a part of a team gives them that structure and sense of belongingness to assist with their social development,” is completely accurate as I have had the chance to witness the improvement each athlete has made.

    I also work with a young girl with Autism at a pre-school centre. She is the only one in the class with Autism, but she is involved in the class’ daily routines. I do agree with the statement you made that “Due to some of these behaviours and their unpredictability, it is very challenging for coaches and leaders to develop programming to include both children with disabilities and typical learning children,” but it is also very beneficial for them to be challenged in different aspects. For example, when we play basketball as a class, she struggles to keep up with the others at times, but she is always happy doing it and bonds with her classmates regardless.

    Great job Terry, I believe strongly in this topic and I think it should be more prominent in today’s sport and recreation programs!

  3. sportandrecenthusiast says:

    I agree that the opportunities for children with disabilities, is an area that requires more attention. There is a growing acceptance for individuals with disability in society. However, the opportunities made available for them in a sport and recreation context is very limited. Every child should have access to sport and recreational opportunities, and the developmental benefits that accompany them.

    In my hometown, I volunteer in a Kindergarten classroom, with a child with Autism. Although he has individualized attention, he is always a part of the classroom setting and thus receives the benefits of social interactions within the classroom. I strongly agree with your point that every child should be treated as valuable and an asset in the making. Although there is added difficulty in providing programs accessible to individuals with disability, it is necessary that these individuals be included, especially with a growing number of diagnoses.

    I believe this is where, we as Kinesiology students must take initiative. The main issue is the lack of awareness of both the limited access of opportunities for youth with disability, and the benefits these individuals receive from having access to these opportunities. There remains a stigma surrounding children with disabilities and parents/coaches often feel including a child with a disability will limit or hold back the program. Therefore, I think it would be beneficial for recreational facilities to offer courses devoted to educating individuals on how to coach children with disabilities. Which would provide coaches with the confidence and techniques required to integrate children with disabilities into their programs, and hopefully reduce some of the stigma surrounding the issue.

    I strongly agree that all youth deserve the opportunity to benefit through recreation and sporting opportunities. Great job, Terry!

    Megan C

  4. colinougler says:

    What I think people tend to overlook, from a social point-of-view, is that people with any form of disability are still people. Sometimes we may forget to include people because of their disabilities not being part of the norm, I do agree whole heartedly that everyone should have the opportunity to be included, so if there are coaches patient enough to find out ways, for example, to work around autism and find the way to distract them from their habits, then they will be able to possibly be more comfortable in a variety of situations with various stimuli.

    I used to dance with a girl who has autism and she always looked forward to going to class. She was a bright spirit and she always remembered the routines. Maybe it is simply a matter of just trying to include people rather than focus on the differences. Once you get to know a person, regardless of their mental state, a coach can typically have an idea of what works for the individual and what does not.

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