Issue No. 34, November 2011

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom
that is in it—and  stop there.

~ Mark Twain

Last month we pondered the question of Raising a Quitter.  How does a child come to be a quitter? Could the seeds that sow a quitter come from our own hand?

This month we look at how autism might impact a child’s ability to participate in sports and physical games, and how parents and coaches can encourage group or individual sports involvement for children with autism.


Physical wellness in children is an issue for our times. Decreasing amounts of time spent in physical activities, increasing amounts of time spent on electronic activities coupled with poor dietary habits has contributed to the explosion of obesity in school age children. Unaddressed, these children will grow up to reap the rewards of their sedentary lifestyles—heart disease, diabetes, decreased life span.  Scarier than anything I saw this past Halloween is the growing body of data suggesting that our children’s life expectancy will be shorter than that of their parents.

Physical activity is critical not only to bodily wellness but to cognitive, social and emotional health as well. Your child with autism faces even greater challenge than his typically developing peers. Impairments to sensory processing, social cueing and language processing may impede his ability to participate in a general PE class or in team sports. In many cases, these impairments may have little to do with gross motor skills.

Sports participation requires the ability to reliably perform a gross motor skill repetitiously, and then apply it to a specific context. When a child can do this, the  opportunities to interact with peers in active fashion increase. With proper accommodation, most children with autism can reap the benefits of participating in physical activity. In this article, I’ll cover how impairments in autism other than physical can affect ability to participate in PE or group sports, and how teachers, coaches and parents can modify their instruction in a manner that allows the child with autism to participate successfully and safely.

Identify problem areas. Become aware of extenuating circumstances unrelated to a child’s gross motor skills can affect his ability to participate in physical-social activities.

  • Child is not physically safe in the PE or sports environment (runs off, uses equipment improperly)
  • Child has difficulty independently performing activities due to attention problems
  • Child needs verbal or physical cueing or assistance to perform activities
  • Child needs modified rules or equipment
  • Child has trouble understanding, processing or following instructions delivered to a large group, or delivered verbally one-on-one
  • Child can perform the skill but not at the pace of the general group

Communicate using simple, clear, supportive language

  • Keep teaching increments small. Teach one thing at a time: a motor skill, a set of rules, or the language of the game – but not all at once.
  • Give instructions one step at a time, checking for comprehension
  • Give instructions one-on-one or in close proximity to the student. S/he is not able to filter multiple auditory inputs.
  • Repeat instructions throughout the activity.

Provide visual support for activities. These can be written instructions in large, bold serif, double-spaced type on low-brightness or buff-colored paper.  If possible, make visual instructions available to the student and family ahead of time. Some children benefit from having the visuals on a flash drive, CD or audio device.

Have an adult or peer review the visual materials with the student or player to check for comprehension.

During the activity, define the playing space by setting clear visual boundaries.

Set up visual point or reward system for following instructions, staying with the activity for a certain number of minutes, completing the activity. Expect progress to come in tiny increments.

Beware sports idioms and metaphors! Use concrete references:

Idiom   Concrete
You’re batting a thousand You did it right
You hit the bulls eye You did it right
Knock it out of the park Swing the bat as hard as you can
Burn up the track Run very fast
Keep your eye on the ball Watch where the ball goes
Let’s get the ball rolling We are ready to start
You jumped the gun You started too soon/before I said to

Encourage two-way communication. Your student with autism processes information more slowly and in a different manner than typically developing kids. Allow plenty of time for him to respond. Be alert to ways in which he may communicate with you other than with words. Body language is communication; behavior is communication. Offer alternative ways in which he can communicate with you other than with words.


  • Walk the child through steps of an activity, clearly identifying the beginning and end.
  • Assign a peer buddy. Choose carefully; it must be someone who is competent but not superior at the activity (discouraging to the student who struggles) and who likes helping others.
  • Place the child with autism third or fourth in line. This gives him a chance to observe his peers performing the activity and motor plan how he will do it, but without the anxiety or frustration of a long wait in line.

Respect the child’s social boundaries

  • Don’t force physically close interactions. Something as simple as letting him sit at the end of the bench or on a separate chair or stool can make a big difference. Don’t tousle her hair, pat her on the back, offer a hug or a handshake without asking her (or a parent) if this is acceptable to her.
  • He may be more comfortable learning or participating with children older or younger than himself. Teach to his developmental age, not his chronological age.
  • She needs consistency, more so than typical children do. She may take her time getting to know you and trust you. Be patient, results will come when she feels comfortable.
  • Avoid an ever-changing lineup of helpers, teachers and assistants. A consistent helper will learn when he needs help and when to fade, and that’s ultimately what we want on his way to being able to perform independently.
  • Don’t spring changes on her. Introduce well ahead of time to allow her to adjust. Use visuals to explain changes.
  • As much as possible, allow the child to self-pace  social interactions when focusing on learning motor skills. Many children with autism know when to “check out” for a self-regulation break. And all children, like all adults, will occasionally have an off day. Move on. There’s always tomorrow.

The care and prevention of “behavior.” Consistent teaching, predictable routine, clear language and visual supports are the best defense against “behavior.” Know the warning signs of an impending meltdown:

  • Loss of balance or orientation
  • Skin flushes, or suddenly goes pale
  • Child is verbalizing “Stop!”
  • Child steadfastly refuses activity
  • Racing heartbeat, or, sudden drop in pulse
  • Hysteria, crying
  • Stomach distress:  cramps, nausea, vomiting
  • Profuse sweating
  • Child becomes agitated or angry
  • Child repeats non-relevant phrases or behaviors over and over again (self-calming behavior)
  • Child lashes out, hits or bites

If any of these occur, stop the activity at once, direct the child to a calming area or activity until he is ready to re-join the group, or stop for the day.  It is wise to have a plan for handling behavior situations before they arise. Consult with parent, teacher or occupational therapist for effective calming techniques. Many children with autism demonstrate repetitive behaviors than can seem odd. These behaviors fill a need for the child. Attempting to extinguish them without identifying the need behind the behavior will be unsuccessful. 

Adaptations for all. Adaptations abound for nearly all sports, so opportunity is everywhere for the child with autism to build skills and experience success. 

Rule #1: keep it fun, keep it safe.

GOLF:  Enlarge the hole, use larger ball (such as tennis ball), use club with larger head, use lighter or shorter club, don’t keep score.

BASKETBALL: play half court, identify each team’s basket with colored cone, modify size and weight of ball, lower or enlarge hoop, shorten foul line.

ROLLERSKATING, SKATEBOARDING: Acclimate a child to skates by letting him walk around a carpeted area until he gets the feeling of balance. Transition to skating using a walker or cross-country roller-ski poles.

TABLE TENNIS: install bumpers (as in bowling alleys) so the ball doesn’t bounce off the table as frequently. Allow more than one bounce. Lower or remove the net. Play two against one, your child and a teammate against a single more skilled person.

FLOOR HOCKEY: use a brightly colored Frisbee or plastic plate rather than puck, use brooms instead of hockey sticks, increase or decrease size of goal or playing area as needed, visually define playing area with bright tape or cones.

BOWLING-TYPE GAMES: use lane bumpers, ramp the lane slightly downhill (large plastic tubing sawed in half lengthwise works well), allow a standing start, shorten distance to pins, color code the head pin.

TAG-TYPE GAMES: Tag using a swim noodle, foam pipe insulation or “We’re #1” foam sports finger rather than hands (maintains proxemic safety zone and limits uncomfortable touching for the child with autism). Create a neutral or safety zone where the child can retreat if he tires or needs a self-regulation break.

And above all—

Praise the effort, not just the result. Always emphasize ability, not disability.

© 2011 Ellen Notbohm

Current Reads

Autism Asperger’s Digest – Perspective: Rethink, Reframe, Relate

Our George Washington Moments

 A recent study by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment claims that adults tell an average of three lies per day. Most often, this study concluded, we lie to our partners, but we also lie to our coworkers and our friends. We lie about tasks done or not done, about what we’ve eaten, what we spend, where we’re going, where we’ve been, who we’ve been with today or long ago. What this study appears not to have explored is how often we lie to our children. . .

Children’s Voice – Exceptional Children: Navigating Special Education and Learning Differences

When I Grow Up I Want to Be . . .

Rare is the parent who has never wondered what his or her child will grow up to be. Rare I am not, although I did postpone my wondering until my children were into puberty. I might have postponed the wondering about my son Bryce, who has autism, longer but for a middle school teacher who volunteered the opinion that she could “see our friend Bryce doing well in a cubicle doing clearly delineated tasks exactly as he is told.” There’s nothing wrong with cubicle jobs, but Bryce was already interested in filmmaking, an outside-the-cubicle profession if ever there was one . . .

New interviews

 Special Needs Book Review

“There is the expression Start with a bang! in French, Commencer sur une bonne note!. For this author interview series we are  certainly doing that,” says KidCompanions VP Lorna d’Entremont.


Q: Is there a recurring problem that children with autism or Asperger’s have that shows up in all aspects of their upbringing?

Ellen: I find it interesting that you asked if there is a recurring problem, rather than if there is a recurring characteristic. The greatest recurring problem for children with autism may not be the physiological or social challenges their autism imposes on them, but that they may be surrounded by adults and peers who do not understand or refuse to accommodate the reality that those with autism experience sensory input differently, communicate differently, socialize differently, learn differently. . .

Read the interview and get 15% plus free delivery in the US for 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s


How does a parent raise a child with autism to be a fulfilled, independent adult? Author Ellen Notbohm, a mother of sons with autism and ADHD, says it’s a long journey during which you need to accept the child for who he is and use common sense. Read the interview here.

Ellen on the Web

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Book excerpts on website

Cick here for book excerpts

Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew
from Chapter 8: Please Help Me with Social Interactions

Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
In its entirety, Chapter 3: I Think Differently

1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
"What We Miss in Misbehavior” and "Game Plan for Meltdowns"

The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
“The Power of a Cookie”

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©2011 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies