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Sports and Fitness for Kids with Special Needs


Updated June 11, 2014

Kids with special needs face challenges when participating in sports and fitness, but physical activity offers many important benefits (just as it does for kids without special needs). Start here to zero in on some options that might work for your child.

Kids with Physical Disabilities

Little girl with Down Syndrome taking a turn on some exercise equipment.
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Even when kids' mobility is limited, or their bodies tire easily, they can still participate in and enjoy sports. Parents, therapists, and teachers have created many sports and fitness programs dedicated to kids with special needs. And there are also ways to include these children in programs designed for kids who don't have any physical challenges.

Kids with Autism

We often think of autism as mostly affecting social skills and the ability to communicate, but it can have implications for physical health and activity as well. Food aversions can lead to weight gain, and oversensitivity to environmental stimuli sometimes makes participating in sports and fitness difficult. But matching a child on the autism spectrum with exercise he enjoys can offer some important benefits. You might also want to read about other parents' experiences with sports for their kids with autism.

Kids with Intellectual Disabilities

If you've heard of the Special Olympics, you've heard of a very successful sports program for kids with special needs, particularly intellectual disabilities. Nearly 4 million athletes in 170 countries participate in Special Olympics events. And it's not the only option for kids with Down syndrome or other cognitive delays.

Kids with Asthma

This chronic condition can be exacerbated by exercise, sometimes depending on the weather or other environmental conditions (indoors and out). But it can also be managed with medication and other strategies, so kids with asthma don't have to miss out on sporting events and other active play.

Kids with Learning Disabilities

If your child enjoys sports and you find a supportive team or environment for her, athletics can provide feelings of success that she might not be getting at school. Plus, physical activity is an excellent stress reliever.

Kids with Attention Disorders

These kids and teens need help redirecting their excess energy, so physical activity is a big win for them. Help your child find a sport she enjoys and can succeed at, and you'll likely see improved behavior at home and at school.

Kids with Anxiety

Just as it does for adults (both with and without anxiety disorders), exercise and physical activity can help kids with anxiety manage stress and improve their mood, energy levels, and ability to sleep.

Kids with Depression

For kids with depression, exercise provides benefits similar to those it offers to kids with anxiety. Working hard on a physical skill can distract your child from negative thoughts, and the discipline that sports teaches can help improve coping skills that she uses in other contexts.

Kids with Diabetes

Kids with diabetes can continue to enjoy sports and play actively with their friends. Their blood sugar will need to be monitored before, during, and after they play, so that any necessary adjustments can be made; but having diabetes doesn't preclude participation in sports at all. Read more about staying active with Type 1 diabetes (written for adults, but applicable to kids too).
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