Some sports can be challenging for autistic kids. That doesn’t mean autistic children should stay away from physical activity, but it is important to help your child to choose sports in which they can excel and that they are likely to enjoy.

Autism creates specific challenges when it comes to sports, such as a loud play environment or the need for deft coordination that’s not shared by all autistic children. But some sports, including non-team activities like horseback riding, open up some exciting possibilities.

This article presents some sports options that offer benefits to autistic children, as well as some sports you may wish to avoid. It also lists some just-for-fun options you can enjoy with your child.

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Team Sports for Autistic Kids

Not every team sport requires high-level communication and cooperation—and many can include an individual athlete as a valued team member. Here are some of the top team sports that could be a great match for your autistic child:

  • Swimming
  • Track and field
  • Bowling

Swimming is a wonderful sport for kids who have a tough time with ball-handling skills. Autistic children can do well with basic strokes and typical water play, while enjoying a sport that allows for individual competition.

Track and field may be a terrific outlet, too. Track events require fewer communication skills than most team sports, yet kids who excel at track are valued team members.

Even though it’s loud, bowling seems to be a natural sport for many autistic kids. Perhaps it’s the highly predictable repetition, but whatever the reasons, bowling is a great sport for social events and bowling leagues are often welcoming to autistic kids.

Team Sports That May Be a Poor Match

While there are always exceptions to the rule, cooperative team sports such as soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and hockey may be particularly tough for an autistic child. That’s because:

  • Coordination: Team sports that require ball or puck handling also require a high level of strength and coordination. Autism often goes along with lowered muscle tone and problems with coordination. As a result, autistic children may have a tough time playing well.
  • Environment: Team sports are often played in environments that are very hot, cold, loud, or bright. Many autistic children have sensory challenges that make loud noise, bright lights, and temperature extremes difficult to handle. The outcome can be a very unhappy or even uncooperative child.
  • Social communication: Teams are all about social communication, and playing team sports requires advanced social communication skills. Autism is often a disorder in which those skills are a challenge. It can be tough for some autistic kids to fit into a team, communicate well with team members, or predict what another team member is likely to do.

All that said, however, many groups are eager to provide autistic children with opportunities to take part in team sports “just like everyone else.”

If your child seems interested, you may want to look into sports teams for autistic children, such as those created by the Challenger Club, which offers opportunities designed specifically for kids with challenges and disabilities.

Be aware that sports organized with autistic children in mind are not always a good lead-in to organized sports for neurotypical children. They are more about social engagement and exercise than about athletic skill-building.

School and Recreational Sports

Young children of all abilities are typically included in school and recreational sports if they are capable of following instructions and interacting appropriately with team members.

If this describes your child, they may be included with little or no problem, at least until the age when sports become competitive. If your child has a hard time following instructions or interacting appropriately, however, you may need to provide 1:1 support.

Once tryouts become part of the mix in school sports, even autistic kids with low support needs may find it hard to make the cut.

Some school teams offer autistic children the opportunity to participate by helping to manage the team or by taking part in the game when their participation won’t have an impact on the outcome of the game.

It will be up to you and your child to decide whether this type of participation is a plus or minus; some youngsters love it, while others feel uncomfortable being the team “mascot.”

Non-Team Sport Options

There is a whole world of non-team sports out there—and autistic children can and do take part in many of them. Skiing, surfing, sailing, and much more can be a great match for your child, especially if your family enjoys them.

While you can choose any non-team sport, however, these are some of the most popular among autistic folks.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is pricey. That aside, though, it’s a terrific sport for autistic kids. In fact, many autistic kids ride horses as a therapeutic activity (as such it’s termed hippotherapy).

It’s not unusual for autistic kids to find it easier to communicate with animals than with people and many autistic children excel at horsemanship.

Hiking and Fishing

For many autistic people, the peace and quiet of the natural world is a great stress reliever. Hiking, which can be an individual or group activity, is an easy way to get exercise and enjoy nature without the pressure of intense social communication.

Fishing is another sport that may be of interest to an autistic person who enjoys the natural world.


Bike riding can be tough for autistic kids, since balance may not come naturally. Once the basic skills are mastered, though, cycling can be a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors.

Like most of the sports described above, cycling can be enjoyed alone or in a group, just for fun or competitively. If your child enjoys the idea of biking and does well with training wheels, but finds a two-wheeler tricky, you may want to consider an adult trike, a tandem, or just sticking with the training wheels.

Martial Arts

The martial arts—karate, judo, taekwondo, aikido, and more—combine the elements of predictability and structure with the challenges of physical interaction with other people.

For many autistic kids, martial arts are a wonderful way to build physical skills along with self-esteem.

Just-For-Fun and Exercise Sports

If you’re hoping to get your autistic child involved with team sports, a good way to get started is by playing together just for fun.

Whether you’re shooting baskets, tossing the ball back and forth, or learning to skate, you’ll be building both physical and social skills if you do it together.

In the long run, it’s experiences like shooting hoops together (even when the hoop is lowered) that help build parent-child connections.

If you’re just concerned with getting your child to exercise, here are a few options to consider:

  • Consider classes (either general interest or autism-specific) in yoga, dance, or other types of movement.
  • Create activities, such as obstacle courses or local “fun runs” that you and your child can do together.
  • Gamify exercise with video systems like Wii and Kinect, which encourage players to move their bodies and learn new skills at home, without the pressure of being observed or encouraged to “join in.”


An autistic child has options for playing sports, including team sports like swimming that create space for individual focus and effort. Whether bowling indoors or horseback riding in an outdoor setting, autistic kids can experience the benefits of both play and exercise.

Not all sports are autism-friendly, though. Team sports like basketball or hockey require high degrees of communication, coordination, and a shared focus on a ball or puck to make the play. Some children may enjoy being part of the team and choose a role that’s not on the field.

Finding activities that are just for fun, like tossing a ball back and forth, can be a great way to get exercise while spending time together.


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