Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

Intellectual Disabilities and Physical Activity

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Intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18. (AAIDD, 2015)

Question: How do we make children that have an intellectual disability such as autism or Down Syndrome more active?

Answer: There is no quick fix, no one perfect solution. Every child and every family is different and has different likes and different resources. A child with an intellectual disability may have more barriers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still possible for them to be active, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and give them every opportunity possible for them to get moving

As future RSS professionals we came up with some of the possible barriers to why children with intellectual disabilities are more inactive. These range anywhere from being less social to more passive to having the same barriers that typically developing children face such as time or lack of availability.

Special Olympics is fantastic. They offer an opportunity for competition in many different sports and offer a safe, fun environment. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the only way for children with intellectual disabilities to be physically active. It is also focused on making sure everyone participates so there may not be enough play time to meet the daily requirements of physical activity. And while Special Olympics is great, it is more geared towards adults as opposed to children, although they do now have a new active start and fundamentals program.


During my presentation, I asked if it was fair to ask coaches of regular sport programs to adapt their coaching styles a little to be able to accommodate for a child with a disability. Most agreed; however it depends on both the child and the coach and the team. This was interesting because often people have a hard time making people aware or accepting of differences.

I do not think there is any perfect solution or one program that will work for each child, but I think as RSS professionals it is something we need to consider.


Solish, A., Perry, A., & Minnes, P. (2010). Participation of children with and without disabilities in social, recreational and leisure activities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, (23), 226-236.

Einarsson, Ingipor; Ólafsson, Águst; Hinriksdottir, Gunnhildur; Johannsson, Erlingur; Daly, Daniel, Arngrimsson, Sigurbjorn, Arni (2015). Differences in physical activity among youth with and without intellectual disability. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 47(2), 411-418.

Townsend, M., & Hassall, J. (2007). Mainstream students’ attitudes to possible inclusion in unified sports with students who have an intellectual disability. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities , (20), 265-273.

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