Athletics can boost confidence for kids with autism and other developmental challenges.

Soccer players practicing drills on field.
For the best experience, let your child be part of the decision-making process when picking the right sport for him or her to play.

The two dozen or so adolescents and a handful of young adults in their 20s filed into the spacious lobby of a community ice rink in suburban Maryland in the pre-dawn darkness and quietly changed into their hockey gear – ice skates, pants and helmets.

Well before 7 a.m. on a Saturday, the players were on the ice, practicing their skating, puck-handling and shots on goal. They could have been any suburban sports team, but this squad was different. On the ice, a handful of teenage mentors partnered with some of the players, not only encouraging their play but engaging them in conversation.

The players are members of the Montgomery Cheetahs, a hockey squad in Montgomery County, Maryland, for kids and young adults with developmental disabilities. The Cheetahs range in age from 7 to 30 and include four girls. Most of the 70 or so players on the Cheetahs (they hold two separate practices, depending on their skill level) have autism spectrum disorder.

ASD covers a wide range of cognitive, motor and behavioral challenges, and common behaviors include failure to respond to one’s own name, poor eye contact and inappropriate and at times aggressive behavior with others. Some people with ASD may have repetitive body movements, such as rocking, or an obsessive attachment to objects like keys. While some kids with ASD are mildly affected, excel in the classroom and go on to attend prestigious universities, others are more profoundly affected and need more assistance to learn in school and with their social conduct.

For the Cheetahs, and for other special needs kids or adolescents, the primary purpose of participating in athletics is to have fun. But playing can also help people with ASD in important ways. For example, ASD can affect the motor skills such as agility, balance, strength and dexterityof some kids with autism, research has shown. Exercise can improve some of these skills, and being physically active also improves one’s mood, studies show.

Many youngsters with ASD have trouble making friends and socializing, in part because they have challenges reading social and emotional cues. Being part of a team helps kids bond and develop friendships outside the skating arena, Cheetah parents say. This flows from their love of the game.

Bonds Formed on the Ice

Like many teenagers, Cheetah Ryan DeSoto, 13, isn’t usually thrilled when his mom, Colleen DeSoto, rousts him to get up for school, she says. When she wakes him for hockey practice, he bounces up, anxious to play – and to see his friends on the team. “This is their tribe, their social group,” DeSoto says. Ryan has developed several friendships with other players and is routinely invited to social events such as birthday parties.

While there’s not much clinical research on the overall impact of playing sports on kids with autism, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that participating in athletics can help them build much-needed confidence, says Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer at Autism Speaks, a global science and advocacy organization that supports people with autism and their families throughout the life span. “They can master [sports] skills and get better, which helps with their confidence,” Goring says. Playing sports also helps kids with ASD “work on social skills such as turn-taking, waiting, cooperation and tolerating losing [good sportsmanship],” says Lauren Herlihy, a licensed psychologist at the Autism Center at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, Connecticut.

Playing Builds Confidence

Cheetah parents say they’ve seen how playing hockey as part of a team has improved their child’s self-assurance and social skills. “This has been awesome for Ryan’s confidence,” DeSoto says. “He’ll tell his schoolmates he plays ice hockey – they’re all impressed. They don’t care that it’s special needs hockey.”

Ice hockey is just one of many team and individual athletic opportunities available for special needs kids nationwide. These include sports leagues created by parents of special needs kids and programs available through city and county recreation departments. There are Little League Baseball divisions and soccer programs, for example, for special needs kids. The Special Olympics has sports opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities, and The Skate Connection, a nonprofit in Los Angeles, provides skateboarding clinics for people with disabilities. Many private schools for kids with special needs have sports teams that emphasize inclusiveness.

“We have a ‘show up and suit up’ approach,” says Brent Betit, head of The Fletcher School, a private nonprofit independent K-12 school in Charlotte, North Carolina, that’s geared toward kids with learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “If they want to play, they can play; we don’t select out like some competitive teams at other schools.” The school has seven competitive teams in soccer, basketball, flag football and other sports, as well as 13 club athletic activities, including jump rope and karate.

With such a wide array of athletic options, figuring out which activity is right can be challenging. Experts and parents of kids with developmental challenges who play sports suggest these strategies:

Follow your child’s lead. It’s important that your child enjoy whatever sport or sports he or she plays, Goring says. Talk to your kid about the different sports opportunities available and “include your child in the decision-making process,” she says. This can help your child build self-confidence and promote a sense of independence.

Find the right fit. Not every sport will be appropriate, or safe, for every child with special needs. For example, ice hockey and basketball – fast-paced team games that involve physical contact and require good hand-eye coordination and on-the-go communication with teammates – may not be the right sport for every child with developmental delays.

For kids who don’t have great motor or communications skills, an individual endeavor that could be part of a team, like swimming or karate, might be best. Amy Kelly’s daughter, Annie, 15, is more profoundly affected by her autism, which affects her motor and verbal communications skills; she communicates with an electronic tablet. Annie’s two brothers taught her how to hit a baseball off a tee in the family’s backyard in the Philadelphia area, and Amy taught her how to run the bases. “She has a great time,” Kelly says. “It’s exercise in a fun way.”

Be creative. A special needs child may not want or be able to play sports, but could participate another way, says Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “A kid could help out as an equipment manager,” says Fisher, whose 5-year-old son has ASD. “Coaches can be creative in incorporating special needs kids into their teams.”

Look for a program with the right coaching philosophy. More important than finding a sport your kid enjoys is locating one where the coaching philosophy focuses primarily on the player’s social, emotional and behavioral growth rather than just mastering game skills or getting exercise, says David Lucia, the Cheetahs’ director and head coach. “It’s more important that they learn to play together as a team, learn to be patient, take turns, treat their teammates and others with dignity, respect and kindness than to be the best puck-handler on the team,” he says.

Celebrate successes. Acknowledge not just victories, but progress on and off the ice, the field or the court, says Tami Feldman, whose son is a Cheetahs mentor. “Try hard and celebrate the little steps,” Feldman says. “For one kid, it may be tying his skates for the first time. We cheer them. Every step is different for every child.”