The sport of gymnastics can provide children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) access to a differentiated approach, which potentially can create a model program to meet each child’s individual needs in a unique and effective manner. Gymnastics is a sport that provides an enriching environment filled with opportunities for sharpening the mind by stimulating the brain, fostering social skills, and strengthening gross and fine motor skills, while providing children with ASD an alternative method for learning and developing new skills.
Concentration or focus is required in each skill that is executed in the sport of gymnastics. Learning to focus in the gym can allow for increased attention to tasks outside of the sport of gymnastics. Children with ASD have the opportunity to develop the vestibular system and increase spatial awareness through various connections that the brain is building when performing routines on different apparatus that involve using various gymnastic skills. The sport of gymnastics provides a highly structured and organized environment in which a child with ASD is able to learn at his/her own pace. In addition to skills that initiate brain development, it is important to nurture and reinforce positive mental qualities. Some of the ways that this can be performed is through modeling gymnastics elements, taking advantage of teachable moments, and providing positive reinforcement aligned with instruction.
As children with ASD continue to develop their social skills, they transition from home to school settings and other environments (e.g. gym) where they begin to experience a wide range of opportunities to communicate. All of these interactions will have a substantial impact on the language and speech development of each child with ASD. Interaction with other teammates and coaches allows for increased appropriate use of paralinguistic behaviors such as taking turns, listening and following directions, making verbal requests, and making eye contact with peers.
The sport of gymnastics provides a sensory-rich environment while simultaneously using physical exercise to develop fine and gross motor skills in children with ASD. Gross motor skills (i.e. running, climbing, jumping) and fine motor skills (i.e. manipulating a hula hoop) are developed through gymnastics skills such as running and jumping on the springboard into the foam pit, climbing a rope, and other related activities.
Gymnastics also provides a learning environment for children with ASD by providing creative approaches for teaching each child new skills. Gymnastics instructors can organize and shape each learning opportunity to correlate with each child’s targeted learning goal(s) while allowing for additional exploratory time. In gymnastics, it is important to allow children time to feel comfortable with the skill before they attempt to execute it (i.e., one child may approach the end of the beam and jump cautiously, where another child may take quick steps with no hesitation when jumping). Each child is provided with a tailor-made learning environment which allows the instructor to adapt and modify the program based on the child’s individual needs.
Gymnastics programs can potentially aid in providing a functional and invaluable learning environment for children with ASD. Therefore, it is advantageous for parents and professionals to collaborate in defining, planning, and implementing participation in recreational activities (Potvin, Prelock & Snider, 2008). Gymnastics gives children with ASD an opportunity to experience the joys of success through their individual achievements, or from the success of their teammates. Moving therapy to the gym could provide immeasurable opportunities for children with ASD, and promote generalization of learned skills to his/her natural environment.
Potvin, M.C., Prelock, P.A. & Snider, L. (2008). Collaborating to support meaningful participation in recreational activities of children with autism spectrum disorder. Topics in Language Disorders, 28(4), 365-374. Retrieved from: http://www.uvm.edu/~pprelock/articles/Potvin%20Prelock%20Snider%20Collab%20Support%20Recreational%20Activities%20Children%20ASD.pdf
Jourdan Saunders, M.S, CF-SLP, received her Master’s degree at Loyola University in Maryland. She is currently completing her Clinicial Fellowship year in the Miami Dade County Public School System in Florida. She is the creator of the website, Futureslps.com and has a blog that is linked to her website. She created the website to provide resources, inspiration and motivation for individuals who have chosen to major in the field of Speech Language Pathology. Futureslps.com is directed towards students, but anyone can benefit from the resources provided on the site. Jourdan has a gymnastics background of 23 years, she is looking forward to developing gymnastics programs for children with special needs.