Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | January 22, 2014

Anecdotes from an autistic childhood – why I don’t play team sports but am still an athlete

I always thought this was kind of a funny story… I grew up in a small town where everything and then some was all about kids soccer. When I was in kindergarten, my mom decided that I, too, would benefit from playing soccer. Maybe it had something to do with her idea that if I just spent more time with the other kids, they’d actually talk to me. Or maybe it was that she thought I would talk to them. I don’t know. Either way, I showed up at my very first soccer class in the gym. I remember there being about 40 kids there, but I’m sure the number was more like 15-20. It was loud and overwhelming. The instructors gave each kid a ball. The balls were nearly as big as my legs. I was pretty tiny, despite being a little bit older than most of the other kids. Then they taught us some skills – how to dribble the ball between our feet. How to stop the ball. How to kick it with the INSIDE of your foot, not the toes. Then they taught us how to pass the ball to one another. After I’d adjusted to the cacophony, I actually had a really great time. I decided that I loved soccer. The next week came along, and we only spent a few minutes reviewing how to dribble, stop, and pass. Then they took everyone’s balls away and made us all chase after one. And I suddenly ceased to see the point. Thus ended my career with soccer.

I never understood the point of team sports – I was never any good at them in gym class or outside of it. I didn’t understand the rules, they moved too fast for me, and for crying out loud, my success was defined almost entirely on what other random kids who were assigned to the same team I was assigned to did during the game. That doesn’t mean that my athletic abilities were extremely poor. Yes, I have serious proprioception issues. Yes, I’m extremely clumsy. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t learn and excel at a physical activity or sport, it just had to be the right one for me. In addition to numerous team sports introduced in the dreaded gym class, I tried dance (too many kids, too loud music, I’m not graceful, never will be), and ice skating (too cold, I turned blue even with tons of layers, plus the whole sharp blades on my feet was kind of a recipe for disaster), and gymnastics.

Gymnastics was the thing that fit. I actually got pretty good too – I even won states on my best event one year. I’m not saying gymnastics is the solution for every autistic kid who wants to do a sport. I’m saying it was what worked for me. I enjoyed every aspect of it. I was part of a smaller team (there were never more than 8 of us, and we grew up together), and the pressure to improve and get better was entirely on me. I was 100% accountable for all outcomes related to me. It didn’t matter what my teammates did or didn’t do. It was my job to do my best. And it was their job to do their best. We were constantly pushing each other and cheering each other on, because one person’s success was never another person’s failure, it was that person’s success. Gymnastics taught me more than just how to be on a supportive team. I learned how to work with my body in ways I never thought possible. While I’m extremely clumsy walking and doing daily tasks, if I’m doing a gymnastics routine, my concentration is 100% on the moves, and I’m actually very good. I’ve never seriously injured myself doing my routines. Sprained ankles walking off the mats? Definitely. Broken toes walking into the wires that hold up the bars? Yup, been there too. Whack my head on the low bar hard enough to leave a lump? Yep, done that too. But give me a routine to do, and I can learn it and perform it. It takes me a lot longer than many other people to learn the moves, but that’s ok too. I learned them, at my own pace. For me, gymnastics helped me to become more familiar with my body’s strengths and limitations. I was able to learn problem-solving and developed relationships with wonderful teammates. I learned how to participate in competitions and how to win and lose. And I learned some really cool skills that I can still do, at age 24 – I still use the “yeah, I can do a back flip” with a fair amount of regularity – besides, its fun!

Anyway, the point of this ramble is that every kid is different. But don’t discount their ability to participate in a sport or activity just because of their labels. I have found that the important thing isn’t necessarily physical aptitude. It is drive and desire. If you want to do something, you’ll find a way. It might take a long time. It might be exhausting. It might take a huge amount of effort. The path you take to get there might be different from most people. But you’ll find a way to make it work for you. For me, gymnastics was the thing that helped me get there.

And still to this day, I can’t for the life of me, figure out how to play soccer. (or basketball or volleyball or field hockey or football or…….) And that is 100% ok with me. 🙂



  1. thanks for this. As a mother of a 9yr old clumsy ASD kid, it is so very helpful to have “his” perspective at 24 🙂

  2. My 11 year old boy came back from sports suffering because his classmatesbroke the rules in an activity and made fun of him when he complained. I had to explain to him that it was just a game and we neurotypicals don.t take it too seriously. Any way it is stiill a great issue for him to grasp this. Do you think he would get a greater undestanding with time?

    • You know, that’s something I had completely blocked out from my memories of trying to play “team sports” – all the people not following the rules! AND getting away with it because there’s only one referee and no one pays enough attention. This is the other reason I like individual sports – only one performer at a time, and the judges are watching everyone to make sure they follow the rules.

      The whole concept of “just a game” is hard. I think introducing a concept like “game rules” or “playground rules” versus “official rules” might be in order. On the playground, we play the game because it is fun, and because we want to run around. The rules are not as strict, because the goals are different. They are more guidelines. This does have pitfalls, though – in my case, I had trouble with important rules that were always followed (no hands on the soccer ball) versus less important rules (corner kicks, bounds) – to me, if I touched the ball with my hand, that was fine, it is a guideline, but to my classmates, it is a hard and fast rule, even though the others aren’t. So it is hard. I don’t have any perfect solution, sorry! Hopefully some of what I’ve said is good food for thought though.

  3. Well said!!! That IS a good and funny story.
    Team sports are NOT an option for me and never have been, always the last chosen and all that (and those pesky “random kids”!!!)…but I did get pretty deep into yoga and now my son is practicing tae kwon do and got his ORANGE BELT, which was a minor miracle for a variety of reasons…Neither of us will probably ever stop tripping over our own feet, or being liable to fall from a standing still position — nor are we likely to play any team sport (I can’t even follow them as an audience member), but we are healthy and proud. Love,

  4. Love this! Ballet was the fit for me, because of the ritual and routine that surrounds it. As a preprofessional dancer in a very small company, those of us who stuck it out grew up together from age four or five to college. We always knew what the expectations were. And there was a huge element of teamwork, but since it is all predetermined, the teamwork involves precision and cooperation that is 100% EXPECTED, and no surprises or trying to figure out what your teammate’s next move will be. You already know!

    I would have loved to give gymnastics a good shot. I think I would have liked the scoring and precision. Anyway, great post! Thanks!

    • 🙂 I think that if I’d had just a bit more grace, ballet would’ve been a good fit for me – I did it for a while, in 2 spurts (5-7 and 10-12), but had to choose that or gymnastics, and gymnastics won, hands down. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  5. Great post!! Love your message here and agree “But don’t discount their ability to participate in a sport or activity just because of their labels.”

    “I even won states on my best event one year. ” That’s fantastic!!

    I struggle too with team sports because of the rules – I get distracted too easily and lose focus or frankly I did not care enough about it, but I play can well if it is all in fun. I was able to play softball as an adult. I am really good at loner type of sports. I found that ballet and gymnastic were two things that helped me the most as a child. They helped my stability issues and gave me core strength that helped me in a lot of ways. I really enjoyed them.

  6. This is great. ❤ Thank you for writing it! Dance worked for me; specifically, tap dancing and show choir. Both require precision and a more collaborative type of teamwork than other sports, so I loved it, and I did well. I did some ballet and modern as well, but I never was very good at the graceful movements those require, plus pointe shoes seriously destroy your toes. I started when I was 5, and the first few meetings were really hard for me because I was so anxious around new people. A little support and some extra time to get acclimated was all I needed, though.

  7. I was more or less “forced” to do team sports as a kid, and I must say I think I benefitted from it. I was not clumsy, and the time spent on organized team sports, was usually taken away from physical play anyway, but getting to know and interact with not particularly intellectual children, has been beneficial in many ways.

    I didn’t know this until after I quit around 15-16, but the main reason my semi-autistic father pushed me, was so he could spend time doing volunteer work together with his friends, that were also volunteering for the club.

    After I am grown up myself, I understand this more, as I rather do something with my friends, like drink, party or work, than meet with the sole objective to speak, if they are prone to long moments of silence.

  8. My one real regret about my schooldays is that all the outdoor sport focussed on team games. We had hockey, LaCrosse and netball, all of which I found exhausting and very confusing. As I was clearly hopeless, nobody passed the ball to me anyway – so I also felt rejected. The one pleasure was cricket! For girls!! Catching the ball hurt; but most of the time you just stood where you were put and either bowled a ball, hit a ball, or ran about on your own a bit. Far more peaceful.
    But I would have LOVED athletics. I wasn’t much good in the gym, but I later found I could have been a terrific sprinter, and I really fancied the javelin. Not at my school. By the time I did get to a school who valued athletics it was too late; I was in my final year, and with no previous experience. Things are probably much better now – this was back in the 1950s … I’m an old bird! Yes, we do need the option to shine, and team sport is quite a challenge for folks like us.

    Folks like us … who are we, really? Are we just a collection of neurological quirks in an often unsympathetic environment? Or are we souls with an unusual origin? Have we come in from somewhere else?

    And what is our role here? Are we perhaps like the Miners’ canaries, the first creatures to signal that something in the environment or the culture is going very wrong? Are we ultra-sensitives in fact the very people the ‘normal’ folk need to be listening to? Will they come to understand our suffering, and thank us one day?

  9. I went through soccer, gymnastics, floor hockey, even swimming lessons. Eventually what I settled on was Karate. It got pretty loud, but when we got to break boards and do flying kicks and land on giant crash mats, it was awesome! Plus I got to let off alot of steam through pounding on the drill pads 😀

    I also remember getting snapped at by a classmate during gym when I wanted to be goalie for once (I really loved being in net when I could because it was the one thing I was good at and the teacher would scold me for not bothering to chase the ball, I knew I’d never get it anyway lol). She insisted that if I could handle the ball on the field then they’d have a reason to let me be in net, effectively calling me useless. It was kind of an accident but I kicked a ball and it hit her face during the same game. Not that I felt too bad…

    These days I haven’t had much time for Karate since I’m in college trying to get an animation degree, but I feel like it’s become a part of me. I can’t just ‘stop’. As soon as I can I intend to go back and focus more on my katas and maybe start helping with other classes.

    • I hear you on the “just can’t stop” – I try to find a way to do what I like outside of school… even if its just for an hour every week. 🙂

      • Same, last semester I went so far as to declare Wednesdays as ‘game days’. Every other day of the week I was working on things at strategic times so as not to infringe on this time.

        It’s actually surprising considering I used to have major issues with time management, not that I’m not still ironing out the kinks lol

  10. I am a foil fencer and I found that every session, I am successful in some way.

  11. For me it was marching band, then figure skating and now ballet. Before about age 14, I took dance lessons, but the coordination didn’t’ “click” until my third year of color guard.

    I still despise team sports. No idea how to play or why I should care. My fellow adult dancers are my wonderfully-supportive “team” now and I love them. 🙂

    • Oh my goodness yes, I love the “team” of individual sports. 🙂

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