As our society emphasises academic achievements, parents and caregivers race to teach children alphabets, numbers, and other academic concepts in hopes that they will be prepared or catch up with others when they go to school. For children with autism, the emphasis weighs more on language and communication skills as well as self-help skills. Moreover, there has been a rise in the usage of videos and tablet games to teach such concepts, which can be effective and fun, but extremely harmful when the screen time exposure is not regulated. Too much screen time can result in delays in several areas of development, including emotional regulation and focusing difficulties, as well as a lack of motor skills. Due to the significance placed on academics, people tend to forget or neglect other areas like sports, arts, and music, but those are just as important in building children’s development especially when started from a young age.
Alternative Way of Learning
Everyone has their own way and style of learning. Children with autism tend to be kinesthetic, visual, or auditory learners (Rezvani, 2018). Sports, arts, and music are areas where they may progress and thrive since they respectively fit those learning styles mentioned. Learning can be fun when elements of sports, arts, and music are included because it does not feel like work for children, thus it makes it easier to keep them engaged and interested. They also act as natural environment teaching tools as such skills be taught and used in the correct context and situation (running to catch a ball in a game instead of just running with no objectives, or drawing shapes to form a picture instead of just being told to draw but not doing actual artwork).
Physical activities encourage gross motor and fine motor development, especially in strength, stamina, balance, and flexibility. Some children with autism struggle with low muscle tone, so improving those areas can support them in performing daily physical activities and routines, thus building independence as they learn to go about on their own (Najafabadi et al., 2018). Sports, arts, and music - that involve manipulating with an object (basketball, baseball, football), grasping an object and making precise movements (drawing, painting, colouring, playing musical instruments) – can build specific skills like hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, spatial awareness, and prewriting skills.
Brain & Cognitive Development
Individuals with autism are shown to have irregularities in the hormones oxytocin and serotonin, resulting in issues with emotional regulation and socializing (Najafabadi et al., 2018). Physical activities can increase brain development, specifically in balancing the levels of those mentioned hormones. In addition, creative arts and music also stimulate different parts of the brain that are essential for children’s holistic development. Music also increases the synchronizing and connectivity between parts of the left and right brain hemispheres (Janzen & Thaut, 2018). As children with autism respond and react better to musical or visual stimuli (songs, colours, pictures) compared to verbal language, arts and music can be used as great learning and teaching tools (Jones & Bawazir, 2018). Due to the sensorial and tactile nature of sports, arts, and music, they can also help in regulation of stimming, whether for those who are seeking stimulation or overstimulated. Moreover, they also support cognitive development, in terms of improving focus and attention, imagination, abstract thinking, memory, and receptive language.
Social & Emotional Development
As sports encourage teamwork and achieving a common goal, it provides opportunities for natural social interactions between children. Sports incorporate taking turns, playing as a team, sharing an objective, being aware of others, and giving and listening to instructions which involves verbal communication and language. Furthermore, music also encourages speech and language development through singing, playing instruments, and dancing (Janzen & Thaut, 2018). The lyrics, varied intonations, and tempo of songs allow for children to practise active listening and complex skills, such as detecting changes in people’s voice tone and facial expressions. On top of social development, both music and arts provide outlets for children to communicate their emotions, thoughts, and opinions comfortably especially for those with verbal communication difficulties. Through self-expression, creative arts allow for giving some form of tangibility to both their and other people’s feelings, support self-regulation where they have better control of emotions, as well as improve their confidence and self-esteem (Round & Baker, 2017).
All in all, exposure to sports, arts, and music can lead to a holistic development in children with autism. Through fun learning experiences and natural settings, it may even speed up the process of language acquisition, developing independence and communication skills. It also comes hand in hand with the concept of enjoying the process without focusing too much on the results. Parents and caregivers who may have interests in these areas can also build better relationships and bonds with their children if they do sports or arts or music-related activities together. With that, I implore parents and caregivers to let their children explore and indulge in as many types of activities as they can and wish to!
Written by Alisha
Janzen, T. B., & Thaut, M. H. (2018). Rethinking the role of music in the neurodevelopment of autism spectrum disorder. Music & Science, 1. https://doi.org/10.1177/2059204318769639
Jones, P. R., & Bawazir, R. (2018). A theoretical framework on using social stories with the creative arts for individuals on the autistic spectrum. International Journal of Medical and Health Sciences, 11(9), 533-541. https://doi.org/10.1999/1307-6892%2F10008097
Najafabadi, M. G., Sheikh, M., Hemayattalab, R., Memari, A. H., Aderyani, M. R., & Hafizi, S. (2018). The effect of SPARK on social and motor skills of children with autism. Pediatrics & Neonatology, 59(5), 481-487. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedneo.2017.12.005
Rezvani, M. (2018). Teaching english to students with autism: Montessori-oriented versus audio-lingual Method. International Journal of Science, Engineering and Management, 3(2), 19-23. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Adnan-Mahmood-4/publication/351578148_bhwth_mwtmr_malyzya/links/609e33bba6fdcccacb521ac6/bhwth-mwtmr-malyzya.pdf#page=29
Round, A., Baker, W. J., & Rayner, C. S. (2017). Using visual arts to encourage children with autism spectrum disorder to communicate their feelings and emotions. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 5(10), 90-108. http://doi.org/10.4236/jss.2017.510009