Allie Gleason, a Teen with Asperger’s Syndrome, Explains Why Playing Sports is Great for Kids with Autism

When I got up on the block for my first “real” race as part of my high school swim team, I was so nervous. In fact, stepping off the block crossed my mind more than once.

Just before taking my mark, I glanced in my coach’s direction.

Two of my teammates and friends were by my side. She gave me a thumbs up and they clapped and nodded. They all had faith that I would do well, and in that moment, their encouragement was everything to me.

I didn’t win that race, but I felt so incredibly proud when I pulled myself out of the water.

Allie G Photo

However, if you had told my 9 or 10-year old self that one day I’d like participating in a sport, I wouldn’t have believed you.

As I grew up, my parents involved me in a lot of team sports, including basketball and soccer. They hoped it would help me make friends, but I usually performed so poorly that my teammates would get upset with me.

Those kinds of team sports were definitely not for me. But swimming allows me to be a part of a team while competing on my own. And that balance has provided a valuable outlet for me. As this article from About.com notes, some sports are better for kids with autism than others, but in my eyes, they all lead to similar benefits. Here are a few:

Physical Activity

This one is obvious but important. As this information about  aquatic therapy and children with autism notes, there is a high risk of being overweight among people who are autistic. Playing a sport offers a great way to get consistent exercise.

Before I started swimming, I wasn’t overweight, but I certainly wasn’t “in shape.” I led a pretty sedentary lifestyle, spending much of my time reading or watching TV. Swimming has helped me lengthen and strengthen my muscles. It’s great for my heart.

And I always get a great mental boost from the endorphin release that comes with exercising.

Friendships

Sometimes half the battle for a child or teen with autism who’s trying to make a friend is finding a common ground with someone. We aren’t always great at reading people so, as this article from Cleveland Clinic on helping a child with autism make friends notes, having a built-in similar interest with someone is a great starting point.

And that has certainly been the case for me.

Before I started swimming, I didn’t have many friends. But I have developed several strong friendships with some of my swim teammates. We don’t only talk about swimming, but if I’m having trouble connecting, I know that’s a good point to return to.

Self-Esteem

As this article from PsychologyToday.com notes, there are many studies that indicate that sports can be great for building self-esteem. Of course, that can depend on a lot of other factors.

When I tried to play basketball and soccer when I was younger, it was anything but a confidence booster. And that’s one reason I was reluctant to give swimming a try initially.

But with swimming, I can set personal goals and go after them without having the added worry of working within a team strategy. I’m a part of the swim team but when I dive in during a race, I’m an individual pursuing her own goals. That said, going after and achieving those goals has been great for my self-esteem.

So, I think it’s important that children with autism find the right sport for them, and know that just because you aren’t great at one sport doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to excel in another.

Kids with autism can absolutely take advantage of the many benefits that playing sports offers.

Swimming has changed my life for the better, and I highly recommend that other teens with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism try out a few to see what they like best.

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