Are children with autism less likely to play sports?

by Rebecca Israel, MS and Charles Li, MD

June 09, 2020

  • Children with autism are less physically active outside of school than typically developing children.

  • Children with autism are less likely to participate in team sports.

  • Children with autism may be more drawn to activities that do not require social integration.

Autism and Sports

Team sport participation

Social skills are a common behavioral deficiency in children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Delays in social skills development can affect a child’s ability to form relationships, communicate appropriately, and understand social constructs. In this article, we discuss how and why children with autism refrain from participation in team sports.

Study design

Researchers took a sample of 13-years-old boys from a large, nationally representative survey in Ireland between 2007 and 2008. The survey covered 910 primary schools. Questions were answered by both participants and their parents about their health and lifestyle behaviors.

They formed two study groups: autism and typically developing (TD) boys. The TD group reflected the demographic layout of the larger dataset and was considered a good representation of the Irish population.

Autism and Sports Setup

How do children with and without autism participate in sports-related activities?

1. Recruit

Recruited 67 children with and 74 children without autism from primary schools in Ireland

2. Question

Sent questionnaires to children and parents about sports participation

3. Analyze

Analyzed the similarities and differences between groups

Source: Physical Activity, Screen-Time Behavior, and Obesity Among 13-Year Olds in Ireland With and Without Autism Spectrum Disorder

Number of sports outside of school

Participants were asked how many sport-related activities they participated in outside of school-mandated physical education classes in the last year. An example of this would be membership in a soccer or tennis team.

Typically developing children were most likely to report participation in four or more activities in the least year. Children with autism were most likely to report no sports activities. Only three participants said they participated in four or more activities in the last year.

Autism and Sports Results


of children with autism did not play any sports outside of school

Team Participation

# of teams
Children with autism
Typically developing children




In the last year, children with autism participated in less team or individual sports outside of school-based physical education than typically developing children.

In the data, we also saw that children with autism may prefer sports activities that do not involve a coach.

In Ireland, sports that involve a coach would most commonly be team sports such as football... The social nature of these sports may be demanding for a child with difficulties in the social domain, such as those with ASD.

Autism and Sports Results


of children with autism never play sports with a coach

Children who play coach-lead sports

Children with autism
44.8 %
Typically developing children




Typically developing were more likely to play at least one coach-lead sport a week than children with autism.

Top Questions and Answers

Possible reasons why

A portion of the participants gave reasons for not participating in sports. Of this sample, the most common response was a preference for video games. Another reason reported was a lack of competitiveness.

Lack of sports participation Reasons why

of children with autism did not play any sports outside of school-required physical education
Number of children with autism who cited the reason


"I prefer playing video games"


"I do not like team sports"


"I am not competitive"

The lure of video games

In a similar study, researchers compared how many hours a day young boys spent playing video games on average. They found that boys with autism, on average, played video games for more hours in a day than typically developing boys.

Autism and Video Games

Boys with autism spend more time playing video games than typically developing boys

Time Spent Gaming

Boys with Autism: 2.1 hours a week


Typically developing boys: 1.2 hours a week


Source: Video Game Use in Boys With Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, or Typical Development

Video games are considered a nonsocial media. This means that children who play video games are not required to socially integrate with a group or maintain communication with others. For some autistic children who struggle in these areas, video games may be more enjoyable for them than engaging in cognitively or socially demanding tasks.

Though video games may be a low-stress activity, research tells us that extensive media use in developing children may increase their risk of problem behaviors and obesity. This, paired with lower rates of sports participation, creates a health concern for children with autism.

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