It’s probably obvious that there are numerous physical, psychological, and social benefits of youth participation in sport. Being a part of a sports team helps children learn to problem-solve and work together, while simultaneously building confidence and interpersonal relationships. But as you might have guessed, for many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), finding the appropriate sport to foster these areas of development can be challenging.
“What to do?” is often the question faced by many parents interested in enrolling their children with autism in a sport. Before jumping into that question, let’s first discuss what you need to know about ASD, as I have come across many misconceptions while working with this population.
“I am different, not less.” The DSM-5 describes ASD as a range of conditions characterized by challenges and deficits in social skills, repetitive behaviors, and both verbal and nonverbal communication. However, I prefer the term different rather than deficit. It’s not that these kiddos lack the ability to engage in such characteristics; it’s that their thought process behind social interactions, communication, and problem solving are different than the “average” child. But what is average or normal anyway? Further, the behaviors we see externally are only a small piece of children with ASD’s identities. What the DSM-5 fails to acknowledge are the unique strengths and intelligence that children with ASD possess. Rather than focusing on what society tells us they are lacking, learning to better understand and appreciate their unique strengths and differences is the key to fostering ASD children’s development in youth sport and in life.
With that being said, we are back to the same question parents of children with ASD often face in youth sport: “What to do?” and “How do I make my child successful?” In an attempt to answer both significant questions, Zohll Tablante (2017) put together “The 5 C’s” that can really help children with autism succeed in a sport’s program, so I hope you are still truly listening!
Of course, a child’s interests, abilities, and strengths should be taken into consideration when choosing a sport for them. Because children with ASD often struggle with communicating their interests and strengths, it is even more crucial for parents and coaches to help them communicate! Encourage children with ASD to share their perspectives and interests by seeking to understand and by matching their communication levels.
Consider the environment of each sport! Many children with ASD have particular sensory sensitivities, so it is important to avoid environmental factors that might prevent the child from enjoying the sport.
Sometimes children with ASD may need extra time to learn a new skill, or the skill may need to be broken down into smaller pieces before being built back up. Parents should take initiative and collaborate with the coaches about their child’s needs to foster the most enjoyable experiences for their child. After all, love for sport is what we’re after, isn’t it?
Develop connections with other consultants, parents, or coaches who are experiencing similar difficulties. Creating a social network surrounding ASD and youth sport can answer questions, give families an opportunity to share their stories and experiences, and most significantly, provide support for family members!
Go that extra mile as a coach, consultant, or parent and show children with ASD that you are there to support and encourage them as they progress through skill development, no matter what hurdles need to be crossed. Positivity, encouragement, and compassion go a long way in any child’s life, especially those with autism.
Youth sport is a vehicle used to teach children valuable life skills. Though the vehicle for children with ASD may have to dodge some additional traffic, the end goal and positive outcomes remain the same. I’ll leave you with a little extra food for thought regarding ASD. Being different is not less… it is actually what many of us strive to be.
Written by: Demi Maglio
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed. Text Revision).
Leading the Way: Autism-Friendly Youth Organizations. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/youth-organizations
Tablante, Z. (2017). 5 Tips for Helping Your Child Succeed in Sports. Retrieved from http://blog.stageslearning.com/blog/best-sports-for-children-with-autism