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Understanding Physical Literacy

This is an excerpt from Active Games for Children on the Autism Spectrum by Erin Bennett & Mary Dyck.

Physical literacy is necessary for children to develop healthy bodies. Children who are physically literate demonstrate a variety of movements confidently and competently in a wide variety of physical activities (Haydn-Davies, 2005). Physical literacy is cyclic. When children are competent in their movements, they develop confidence in their movements and are more motivated to move. Figure 1.1 illustrates this cycle.

Figure 1.1 The cyclical relationship of competence, confidence, and motivation in physical literacy. Adapted from “What is Physical Literacy,” Physical Literacy, accessed December 1, 2022,
Figure 1.1 The cyclical relationship of competence, confidence, and motivation in physical literacy.
Adapted from “What is Physical Literacy,” Physical Literacy, accessed December 1, 2022,

Physically literate individuals make healthy, active choices throughout their life span that are both beneficial to and respectful of their whole self, others, and their environment. Quality physical education programs provide the best opportunity to develop physical literacy in children and youth. After all, every child, regardless of age, gender, culture, socioeconomic status, or ability, goes to school. When children participate in quality physical education throughout their school years, they have the opportunity to experience a variety of activities in a progressive, sequential format that ensures maximum learning and enjoyment. Well-planned physical education programs complement sport-specific training and help to develop the skills and attitudes necessary for lifelong participation in games, sports, and physical activities.

Misunderstandings about autism continue to exclude children and youth from participating in physical literacy and activity programs (Cunningham, 2020). The lack of education and experience within the general population and the lack of training for leaders cause misconceptions regarding the ability of individuals and may result in lowered expectations for participation. Misconceptions may well result in individuals being excused or excluded from physical activity.

Differences may occur between children on the spectrum and nonautistic children, but those on the spectrum can achieve physical literacy similar to that of their peers (Johnson, 2004). Physical literacy and games benefit all children. Activity increases the ability to learn, improves cognitive performance, and promotes on-task classroom behavior (Trost, 2007).

Fundamental movement skills are the underlying abilities necessary to produce an action such as a jump or throw. Movement skills are fundamental to physical activity and sports. Children on the spectrum are capable of performing fundamental movement skills; however, many children have gross motor differences. A large majority of children on the spectrum do not display the appropriate motor skills of their age group (Hilton et al., 2012). Motion and movement are processed and perceived differently by the brain, leading to atypical gross motor patterns (Fletcher-Watson and Happe, 2019). One of the negative aspects of immature movement patterns and motor coordination differences is poor performance in physical activity settings. Children’s participation in activities such as playing with their peers in parks, at school, in the streets, which supports the development of their communication and interaction skills, is also limited (Bhat et al., 2011).

In turn, children with motor differences run a much higher rate of bully victimization (Bejerot et al., 2011). A carefully and caringly constructed program of physical activity will help develop motor and social skills to increase inclusion in community life.

Other physical differences may include balance issues, hypotonia (muscle weakness), low manual dexterity, and overactivity. Many physical activities require the building blocks of balance, muscle strength, and manual dexterity. Differences with coordination, balance, and motor development may discourage children on the spectrum from even attempting to participate in physical activity. The most difficult movements require coordination of both sides of the body (such as galloping or skipping), require greater timing and coordination skills (for example, a layup in basketball), and where control of force or momentum is needed (bowling or batting are examples). All of these skills can be developed through involvement in physical activity and games with appropriate instruction, sequencing, and encouragement. Developing physical literacy will support inclusion in family, community, and school activities.

Community physical activities and recess times at school are vitally important to a child’s overall health, development, and ability to learn. However, it is common for students on the spectrum to have lower levels of physical activity during unstructured recess times (Pan, 2008). Many things can be learned on the playground, such as how to get along, negotiate, make and follow each other’s rules, talk to others, calm oneself, fall down and get back up again, and take turns. The opportunity to learn and practice self-regulation is another benefit of physical activity. With self-regulation comes more opportunity to be a part of family and community physical activities and games.

Families are the most influential agents in a child’s development. Parents’ beliefs, attitudes, and values regarding physical literacy and activity have a strong impact on which activities will be selected for the child (Lee, 2004). Children of parents who are physically active are more likely to be physically active. In preparation for school and beyond, families may need to provide additional activities to allow the child to make a smooth transition from home to school and community.

Therefore, physical literacy and games provide opportunities not only for health and development but also opportunities to improve areas of disadvantage unique to autism spectrum disorder. For children on the spectrum, physical literacy is especially important to improve their whole being—physical, cognitive, and social.

More Excerpts From Active Games for Children on the Autism Spectrum