Adaptive Sports for Kids with disabilities: 7 Things Parents Should Know
By Dr. Mark Fisher, Director, Adaptive Sports Medicine Program, Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation
Staying active benefits all children, but for kids with physical or cognitive differences, sports can be a game-changer for their overall wellness.
Children with disabilities are prone to be socially isolated and much less physically active than their peers, regardless of impairment. Participating in an adaptive sport, which puts athletes on an even playing field, builds teamwork, confidence and character. Even more important for these kids, it can help strengthen the body as well as improve endurance, flexibility, reduce body fat, and increase lean mass and bone density. Kids who play sports are also less likely to be anxious or depressed and are more independent later in life.
There is a sport for everyone - from those who are just learning to become active to elite para-athletes, but you must do it safely. Here are few tips on how to introduce your kids to adaptive sports.
It’s never too late to get active, but the sooner the better. I recommend exposing children to organized sports and activities between 4-6 years of age. This is when kids start branching out from individual play. It will also help set them up for a childhood of activity. If you wait until adolescence, your child may identify with being non-athletic and may not try a sport because they believe they can’t do it.
Many children born with an impairment grow up in an environment of medicine, and physical and occupational therapy. Participating in a sport allows your child to be active outside of the therapy setting and helps them feel more like other kids their age. It also teaches what they can do with their bodies and how to do it safely. These are skills they can take with them through adulthood. For instance, if they go to college, they can use the recreation center without needing 1:1 guidance to be physically active. De-medicalizing sports allows for these kids to have a lot more fun and engagement when it comes to physical activity.
Speak with a specialist
Before getting involved in any activity or sport, do your due diligence. Speak with a specialist familiar with the sport and environment your child will be participating in. Having someone familiar with managing physical and cognitive impairment in sport is valuable for detecting and evaluating any challenges that might arise.
If your child has a mild impairment, they may be able to participate in a mainstream sport, but extra considerations may be needed when it comes to stretching or bracing. If your child has a more severe impairment, then you’ll want to get connected with the right opportunities that will maximize your child’s capabilities and strengths.
Let your child have input
The adaptions of sport are nearly endless, so allow your child to pursue the sport or activity they show interest in. There's always an opportunity to progress and achieve more through proper training and participation in a sport or physical activity.
Get the appropriate evaluation
Before starting any activity, your child should have a comprehensive pre-participation physical evaluation to make sure it is safe to participate. This is one of the most important things you need to do because research shows pre-participation exams uncover medical concerns in 30-40% of children with special needs. (Compare that to 1-3% for the typical developing adolescent that undergoes a sports physical.)
You’ll also want to make sure your child is cleared by a doctor familiar with adaptive sports specific medical considerations such as medications, equipment, changes in bone density, the risk associated with seizures, the risk associated with contact if there's implanted devices, and whether someone is predisposed to overuse injuries or muscle strains. Without proper technique and guidance, your child is likely at greater risk of injury.
Find available resources to help
Unfortunately, a lot of sports-specific equipment can be expensive, which can be a financial burden for families. Most parents don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a sport their child may or may not be interested after just a few weeks or months.
Many people don’t realize there are grants available to help fund equipment purchases. (See the resources we put together below.) There are also camps that provide the opportunity for your child to try a sport with the option of renting equipment or using equipment that’s been donated. That way, you don’t have to make a commitment or go through the grant process until your child is sure they enjoy the sport.
Empower your child
Society often tells kids with disabilities that they can’t do certain things. By helping your child focus on what they can do and encourage them to push themselves, even when it’s hard, you’re putting your child in a position to be successful whatever their goal might be. Maximizing function is the component that matters most to these kids, and physical activity and sport participation is a powerful way to augment and build that function.
Learn more about the Adaptive Sports Medicine Program at Children’s Mercy.
Learn more about Accessible Sports in Greater Kansas City.
Learn more about some of the local/national resources and grants that are available:
Greater Kansas City Area
- The Whole Person
- Midwest Adaptive Sports
- Ability KC
- Special Olympics of Kansas
- Special Olympics of Missouri
- YMCA Challenger Program
- The Miracle League - Olathe and Independence
Check your local Parks and Rec; the following departments have taken steps to create programs already:
- Belton Parks and Rec
- Jackson County Parks and Rec
- Johnson County Park and Rec
- Lee's Summit Parks and Rec
- Liberty Parks and Rec
- Smithville Parks and Rec
- Wichita Adaptive Sports (Wichita, MO)
- Disabled Athlete Sports Association (St. Louis, MO)
- Adaptive Sports Iowa (Ames, IA)
- Endeavor Games/UCO Center for Adaptive Sports (Edmond, OK)
Many items are not covered by insurance, but some can occasionally be covered if you have an evaluation by a physician with adaptive sports equipment experience.