The two dozen or so adolescents and a handful of young adults in their 20s filed into the spacious lobby of a community ice rink in suburban Maryland in the pre-dawn darkness and quietly changed into their hockey gear – ice skates, pants and helmets.

Well before 7 a.m. on a Saturday, the players were on the ice, practicing their skating, puck-handling and shots on goal. They could have been any suburban sports team, but this squad was different. On the ice, a handful of teenage mentors partnered with some of the players, not only encouraging their play but engaging them in conversation.

The players are members of the Montgomery Cheetahs, a hockey squad in Montgomery County, Maryland, for kids and young adults with developmental disabilities. The Cheetahs range in age from 7 to 30 and include four girls. Most of the 70 or so players on the Cheetahs (they hold two separate practices, depending on their skill level) have autism spectrum disorder.

ASD covers a wide range of cognitive, motor and behavioral challenges, and common behaviors include failure to respond to one’s own name, poor eye contact and inappropriate and at times aggressive behavior with others. Some people with ASD may have repetitive body movements, such as rocking, or an obsessive attachment to objects like keys. While some kids with ASD are mildly affected, excel in the classroom and go on to attend prestigious universities, others are more profoundly affected and need more assistance to learn in school and with their social conduct.

For the Cheetahs, and for other special needs kids or adolescents, the primary purpose of participating in athletics is to have fun. But playing can also help people with ASD in important ways. For example, ASD can affect the motor skills such as agility, balance, strength and dexterityof some kids with autism, research has shown. Exercise can improve some of these skills, and being physically active also improves one’s mood, studies show.

Many youngsters with ASD have trouble making friends and socializing, in part because they have challenges reading social and emotional cues. Being part of a team helps kids bond and develop friendships outside the skating arena, Cheetah parents say. This flows from their love of the game.

Bonds Formed on the Ice

Like many teenagers, Cheetah Ryan DeSoto, 13, isn’t usually thrilled when his mom, Colleen DeSoto, rousts him to get up for school, she says. When she wakes him for hockey practice, he bounces up, anxious to play – and to see his friends on the team. “This is their tribe, their social group,” DeSoto says. Ryan has developed several friendships with other players and is routinely invited to social events such as birthday parties.

While there’s not much clinical research on the overall impact of playing sports on kids with autism, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that participating in athletics can help them build much-needed confidence, says Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer at Autism Speaks, a global science and advocacy organization that supports people with autism and their families throughout the life span. “They can master [sports] skills and get better, which helps with their confidence,” Goring says. Playing sports also helps kids with ASD “work on social skills such as turn-taking, waiting, cooperation and tolerating losing [good sportsmanship],” says Lauren Herlihy, a licensed psychologist at the Autism Center at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, Connecticut.