Special Olympics volunteers and coaches are experienced working with young people and adults with autism. The goal is to find a sport that is best suited to each athlete, whether the athlete has sensory or socialization issues—or just needs a confidence-booster.

What Is Autism?


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or autism, is a complex neurological and developmental disorder that affects how a person acts, communicates, learns, and interacts with others.

ASD affects the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. Because it affects a child's development, ASD is called a developmental disorder. ASD can last throughout a person's life. People with this disorder have problems with communication, interactions with other people (social skills), restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.

Different people with autism can have different symptoms. For this reason, autism is known as a spectrum disorder—a group of disorders with a range of similar features. ASD includes:

  • Autistic disorder ("classic" autism). Autistic disorder is often what people think of when they think of autism.
  • Asperger syndrome. Asperger syndrome is sometimes said to be a milder version of classic autism, mostly affecting social behaviors. Unlike people with autism, many people with Asperger syndrome have normal or above-average intelligence and language skills.
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS, or "atypical" autism). PDD-NOS includes some, but not all, of the features of classic autism and/or Asperger syndrome. This category also includes childhood disintegrative disorder and Rett syndrome, two conditions in which a child develops normally for several months or years, then loses skills related to language, movement and coordination, and other cognitive functions.

What Are the Symptoms?


The symptoms of one person with autism can be very different from another's. One person with autism may have mild symptoms, while another may have more serious symptoms, but they both have ASD.

Despite the range of possible symptoms, there are certain actions and behaviors that are common. In general, the main signs and symptoms of ASD relate to: communication; social behaviors; and routines or repetitive behaviors, sometimes called stereotyped behaviors.


  • Does not respond to his/her name by 12 months of age
  • Cannot explain what he/she wants
  • Language skills are slow to develop or speech is delayed
  • Doesn't follow directions
  • Seems to hear sometimes, but not other times
  • Doesn't point or wave "bye-bye"
  • Used to say a few words or babble, but now does not

Social Behavior:

  • Doesn't smile when smiled at
  • Has poor eye contact
  • Seems to prefer to play alone
  • Is very independent for his/her age
  • Seems to tune people out

Steroeotyped Behavior:

  • Gets "stuck" doing the same things over and over and can't move on to other things
  • Shows deep attachment to toys, objects, or routines
  • Spends a lot of time lining things up or putting things in a certain order
  • Repeats words or phrases

Other Behaviors:

  • Has unusual movement patterns
  • Doesn't know how to play with toys
  • Does things "early" compared to other children
  • Walks on his/her toes
  • Throws intense or violent tantrums
  • Is overly active, uncooperative, or resistant
  • Seems overly sensitive to noise

How Common Is Autism?


Researchers don't know exactly how many people in the United States have ASD.

The latest estimates suggest that about one out of every 68 children—or 1.5% of children—in the United States has autism. About 36,500 of every 4 million children born each year in the U.S. will have autism.

ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Studies in Europe, North America and Asia show an average prevalence of people with autism between 1% and 2% of the population.

ASD is about 4.5 times more common among boys than among girls.

Communicating Without Words


For athletes with autism, the social experience at Special Olympics events can be both rewarding and empowering. Not only do our athletes learn new skills (and get to show them off), these athletes compete in a "safe" environment where they can interact with other people in a non-pressured, relaxing way.

Special Olympics volunteers and coaches are experienced working with young people and adults who may have trouble communicating or who have sensory issues. We will find a way—and a sport—that is best suited to each athlete.

Seeing What's Inside the Mind


For parents and care-givers, the ultimate reward sometimes comes in unexpected ways. One mom of an athlete with autism knew her son liked Special Olympics; he just wasn't able to tell her.

Michael doesn't communicate well, so it can be hard to tell what he thinks. Then one day, the 15-year-old redecorated his room. His mom says, "We got a glimpse inside his mind when Michael decided to decorate."

Apparently what Michael feels about Special Olympics ... is pride. He collected all his Special Olympics medals and hung them on his wall in a proud display. His mother says, "Now I am so proud. And happy! Sometimes it is so hard to make sure he can participate; it takes quite a lot of juggling to make the schedule work. This makes it all worthwhile."

Sources: The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development/National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Special Olympics.

This information came from Special Olympics.