Issue No. 34, November 2011
We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom
~ 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.
Communicate using simple, clear, supportive language
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:
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.
Respect the child’s social boundaries
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:
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
“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.
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Book excerpts on website
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew
Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
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©2011 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies