Home Speech-Language Pathology Moving Therapy to the Gym: The Benefits of Gymnastics for Children with Autism

Moving Therapy to the Gym: The Benefits of Gymnastics for Children with Autism

by Jourdan Saunders
written by

Rings for gymnastics(つり輪)

Photo by kawanet

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.

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Moving Therapy to the Gym: The Benefits of Gymnastics for Children with Autism | Speech Language Pathology | Scoop.it September 12, 2011 - 1:03 pm

[…] Moving Therapy to the Gym: The Benefits of Gymnastics for Children with Autism Photo by kawanet 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… Source: blog.asha.org […]

Erwin van den Hout September 13, 2011 - 2:30 pm

I would like to draw attention to our new app, called iPicto, for iPhone, iPod Touch

and iPad.
This app is designed to guide people with a (mental) disability, with or without
dementia/alzheimer, asperger, autism and / or a disorder in communication.

This new app iPicto is also a very good tool in learning a way of communication,

for example speech difficulties.

I refer you for further information, visit the App Store.

See for it: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ipicto/id423225072?mt=8&ls=1

Susie Baron November 6, 2011 - 8:59 am

Thank you for posting this on Facebook! I am a teacher at a public school and can share this with the families that have ASD.

vickie November 7, 2011 - 5:09 pm

The one thing you might have forgotten was the noise level in a gym. I know most children with ASD have trouble with noise and some with large spaces. Along with the benefits of gymnastics you may have wanted to add ways to help the children thru the noise and space.

Beth Gardner November 7, 2011 - 10:57 pm

I’m a gymnastics coach who works with quite a few kiddos with special needs. I can attest to the benefits for children with ASD. Our sport is fabulous for providing the movement experiences these kiddos need. For the person who mentioned the noise level and other distractions in a gymnastics facility…I generally try to meet any of my kids who have special needs during the quiet times in the gym. I take about 30 minutes to get to know them, their parent and to watch their movement. That 30 minutes is invaluable in assessing their movement needs. When they first start in my gym, we try our best to find times when we can use low lighting, no music or intensive distraction for them to start. This gives them a period of time to get to know me, the facility, class structure and expectations. After they have been with me for awhile, I slowly increase the stimuli, so they gradually become accustomed to the gymnastics environment. We often start with one-on-one instruction, then pair them, then group them, then mainstream them. The goal is always to mainstream. ..but it’s a gradual process. I’ve seen wonderful things happen in these children’s lives through their participation in our sport. I encourage other gyms to open their doors and share our sport with all children. We have the unbelievable opportunity to make such a difference in children’s lives.

Jourdan Saunders November 27, 2011 - 2:16 pm

Thank you Susie for sharing and for your feedback.

Thank you Vickie for your feedback, you are exactly right regarding noise level in the gym. Great point.

Thank you Beth for sharing, it is very inspiring to read all of the highlights from your personal experiences, as well as the benefits.

K. December 2, 2011 - 4:20 am

I’m an autistic adult, former gymnast, current coach. We’ve got a few autistic kids in our program.

The sport gave me so many peer-accepted skills (when you can do a double back, no one cares that you flap your hands), and it was a place I could thrive (and trampolines, ohmigosh).

Now my autistic students are thriving athletically & academically. I keep looking forward to hearing more about programs that aren’t necessarily ‘just’ theraputic. My girls love competing, & so did I. More experiences are always good.

Kelsi August 11, 2012 - 1:57 am

Hi. I have been coaching gymnastics for a couple years now and I have just recently started at a new gym where they have me coaching a boys team (which I have never done), and on top of that, a couple are autistic. It would be wonderful if you could give me a few pointers on how to keep the boys interested in the class. The gym I work at is constantly packed so no time for one on one with the boys without all the distractions. Help please!

Jourdan November 13, 2012 - 4:38 pm

Hi Kelsi,
Feel Free to email me at futureslps.com@gmail.com, for some possible strategies to incorporate into your gymnastics sessions.

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