Sensory Issues for ASD and Neurotypical Athletes

ASD Sensory Issues 1

It’s remarkable what I learn from my athletes.

With my ASD (Autism Spectrum) athletes, there is so much to learn about movement ability and deficiencies, specific programming needs and variables and the unique communication styles each one thrives on.

In other words, they have the same overall programming and training needs as neurotypical athletes.

Only different. The differences are borne not only out of assessment results and individual preferences and abilities, but out of how they experience, integrate and express their place in, the world around them.


One of those differences is in sensory experience, differentiation and expression.

The ASD athlete experiences contact with objects, surfaces and even people differently than neurotypical athletes. In ASD athletes and clients, sensory dysfunction is fairly common. Often, this takes the form of sensory integration dysfunction.   The tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive aspects of the sensory integration system may be variably impacted by dysfunction, causing a variety of problems at varying levels of intensity.   Often, these athletes respond to light touches in ways that seem out of proportion.

When the tactile system is dysfunctional, touch and/or pain may be misperceived (either hypo- or hypersensitive in nature.) The athlete may become withdrawn, irritable, distracted or hyperactive.   The generally accepted theory is that the improperly functioning and immature tactile system sends abnormal signals to the cortex in the brain, interfering with regular or normal brain processes. The resulting overload of signal to the brain leads to a situation in which brain activity can neither be turned off nor organized.


This kind of over-stimulation can cause a condition in which the athlete can’t organize his/her behavior, organize thought and communication, focus and, in some cases, interact with people or environments at even the most basic level.   In Andrews case, things or contact behind him or on his posterior side create additional processing issues. An unexpected or surprise pat on the back can draw a cringe and a defensive drawing away.

So the minor discomfort of a barbell across his back is magnified, not in intensity, necessarily, but in the level of cognitive disturbance. He becomes suddenly aware of contact he can’t see. Without a visual stimulus, he doesn’t process the contact the same way others would, and not as well as if the contact were in front of him or expected via visual connection.

This is his second time with a bar on his back. We’re spending time letting him get used to it, and celebrating the accomplishment of a 30 second static hold.


We’ve moved from an immediate expression of pain and mild panic to the expectation of some stress and a sense of “I’ve got this.”

This is part of the process of moving him into barbell squats and barbell work in general. How long will it take? As long as it takes.

We’ll focus on the process and celebrate each step on the journey.

Great advice for working with ASD athletes AND neurotypical athletes.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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