Questions about Sport and Autism:
“Let’s stop running from, but start running for something!”
The story almost always sounds the same. Being that child who’s different from the rest, bullied by your peers, struggling in education, finding it hard to maintain a job, mental health issues becoming a major hindrance, multiple labels given (OCD , Anxiety, Depression, etc..) but never a solution, then one day the diagnosis which makes it all make sense… Autism.
That is my story and also the story of many others. Mine has a twist though which I have not often heard talked about in other people’s stories. I like to run to understand my autism, and I run a lot. I use the physical activity through sport to learn where my boundaries are and also develop ways to understand the physical restrictions and psychological difficulties that come with my autism.
This has me asking why so few stories with autism involve sport? If it is something that can help, why is it not talked about more often or easy to find research on? I have a feeling that this may be because people with Autism aren’t always considered very sporty, that we like hobbies of the nonphysical sort. Could it be that this is an assumption that is wrong?
I grew up without television or computers, we had only the bush and ocean outside to entertain us. School where I grew up was very outdoor oriented and the curriculum involved athletics, swimming and multiple ball sports. I excelled in individual sports like high jump and running but when it came to swimming I just sank. My memories of sport participation range from representing the school in running, to having the whole class punished because I threw a shot-put at the wrong time as I panicked under stress due to the way the teacher had set up the exercise. I have more memories of sport being stressful due to not understanding the rules set for us to follow, than successful and enjoyable experiences. By the end of primary school I had been channelled to focus on things that didn’t involve sport (math oriented). If there was an opportunity to participate in sport then I was always the last chosen due to my clumsiness and inability to understand the rules involved. In secondary school? Well it went from bad to worst.. I was no-longer just the last pick, but I was also now the kicking bag. The ball would be passed my direction so that everyone could tackle me.
Outside school I would enjoy all board related sports; skate, surf, and snowboarding. Even though I did these for nearly a decade, I eventually stopped due to stress as I could not adapt to the social and competitive aspects involved when participating in a group setting. The end result is that by the time I was 25 years old I no longer had any physical sport to participate in. Yes I am clumsy, yes I have a hard time playing in team activities, and yes it is a struggle to participate in sports, but no that does not mean I am not sporty.
I really do wonder how many children and adults with autism would benefit if we saw each other as lovers of sport, not just lovers of nonphysical hobbies. What if school had seen through my physical awkwardness and recognised the potential that I actually held? What if my teacher’s frustration towards my disruptive behaviour, due to my stress from the misunderstanding of her rules, was turned into creating new ways to make sport an enjoyable experience for me? Are we as a society steering people with autism away from learning to love physical activity because of the physical and social awkwardness that we display towards sport?
I am not a medical professional, nor have I done any research into the questions about sport and autism, but what I do know is that society taught me to run from sport. Once I started running towards the benefits that sport gives to assist dealing with my Autism, it became a game changer. I am very thankful to the role that sport (trail running) plays in my own story.