Can Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) play Youth Sports? YES!
It is actually the best Social Skills Training out there!
There is about a million articles out there about Youth Sports. The trend today is to develop the whole child, and not just focus on winning at all cost. As a youth baseball coach myself, I was introduced to many articles and videos to promote this. The best articles I have found have been from the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA).
The Positive Coaching Alliance mission is to transform the youth sports culture into a Development Zone® where all youth and high school athletes have a positive, character-building experience that results in Better Athletes, Better People.
*The Double-Goal Coach®, who strives to win while also pursuing the more important goal of teaching life lessons through sports
*The Second-Goal Parent®, who concentrates on life lessons, while letting coaches and athletes focus on competing
*The Triple-Impact Competitor®, who strives to impact sport on three levels by improving oneself, teammates and the game as a whole.
PCA also states teaching life lessons through sports by using positive reinforcement. Hmmm…. Sound familiar? Yes! Positive Reinforcement is what special education teachers use to teach appropriate behavior, academics, well EVERYTHING! And the goal is to teach life lessons, to improve oneself, to be a good teammate and to improve the game as a whole. I can’t think of a better social skills group taught in an inclusion setting than this!
As a youth baseball coach, I came across many athletes all at different levels. And yes, I coached kids with special needs. Being a special needs teacher I would recruit kids with special needs on my team! I remember one really important play that made me rethink the game and how it pertained to life lessons. It went something like this…
A long drive to right field, the right fielder with special needs responds to the play, however not as fast as another player may have and the ball goes over his head. He runs slower than most players, but his fastest to get the ball. The center fielder runs over to help and the second baseman runs out for the cut off. The right fielder grabs the ball and hits his cut off man who then throws the ball home. But, too late the runs came in and we lost the game. The boys are sad and disappointed that we lost. A Dad looks at me from the sidelines as the boys are coming off the field, points to right field and says, “That’s not fair!” I could have chosen to think of it like that Dad. How unfair that a better player wasn’t playing right field, but was it really unfair? Did those boys miss out on a win? Don’t get me wrong, as a highly competitive player growing up I loved to win. I have that same competitive spirit as a coach. I had made my share of mistakes by winning at all cost. But instead of looking at it as unfair, I gathered the boys with a smile on my face and I told them how proud I was of all of them. They did everything right. The pitcher pitched a strike, the right fielder chased the ball down and threw it to the second baseman who was in the correct position, the center fielder helped out. It was all PERFECT! In fact, is was so much fun to watch. I modeled positive praise to all the kids and they praised each other. They picked each other up. That was the life lesson. Yes, even losing was the life lesson. Those boys became closer as a team and stronger players because of this and I became a more effective coach. In my eyes, that was the win. In all reality, say in ten years time, would those boys ever remember they lost that game? Maybe, maybe not, but I am confident they would remember friendships made and playing the game they loved more. And I do remember a five game winning streak after that game!
I know the number one thing on a child’s list who has special needs is to have friends. That kid on my team had 11 friends. It was all a win-win. He learned from his teammates how to not just play the game, but learned how to be a teammate, learned the importance of work ethic and his teammates also learned from him. They learned how to be patient, support and stand by your teammate. This kid wasn’t as concerned with hitting home runs as some of the other kids were. But did that make him less of a teammate? Absolutely not! Every player was at a different level and this kid was just trying to make contact with the ball and his teammates cheered him on for it. In the end, everyone learned when they gave it their all, no matter at what level, great things happened.
Recently, my son with ASD started playing lacrosse in 6th grade. It was my husband’s idea because he believed in how important youth sports are for kids’s social and physical development. How right he was! I will admit, it was a brave move as most kids have been playing since they were in Kindergarten. However, my husband got my son excited to play and we got him ready for the season. We went out and bought him all the gear he needed and began working with his catching and throwing. When we arrived at his first practice, we learned our son wasn’t the only player just starting to play the game, but a few other players were too. The Lacrosse coaches did an amazing job welcoming these newbies and helped them catch up teaching them the basic skills.
From his first season playing Lacrosse, my son fell in love with the game. I will never forget after his first game when he was walking off the field, I asked him, “How was it?” He said with a huge smile on his face, “That was awesome! I had so much fun!” My son who would normally just be home either watching TV or playing on his computer was out getting exercise, learning to compete, cheering on his teammates and have his teammates cheer for him. He learned so many social skills in a natural environment. I remember in one game a player got hurt and all the players immediately went down on one knee. My son who didn’t know that was what you did, ran over to the hurt player to help him. The coach screamed out to him to take a knee! The coach catching my eye as we both smiled as he took a knee just inches from the hurt player. And when the player got up everyone cheered, including my son. He was exposed to so many social norms, that otherwise he never would have had the opportunity to learn. His self-confidence has soared because he is a part of a team. He has a purpose and is learning not only a work ethic but learning his role as a teammate. My husband guided him with talking points to say to his teammates, such as, “You are really good at catching the ball can you give me some tips?” And his teammates were always there to help. In fact, I hear kids say hi to my son in the community and I ask him, “Who was that?” and his response is, “A kid on my Lacrosse team!” This has been the best life skills experience that will prepare him for his future. And no, not as an elite athlete, but as a functional member in society. But you never know, ALWAYS BET ON EVERY KID! At the end of the season all of his teammates were hopeful he would continue to play next season and when they asked him he said, “100 percent!”
This experience has been so amazing for my son and for my husband and I as parents of a child with special needs. Yes, I admit it is hard to watch when my son missed a pass or is out of position. I hold my breath, but then realize other parents in the stands, his teammates and his coach are all cheering for him and then I exhale and just enjoy watching the game. How amazing for any player to play a game with that level of support. To hear others cheering our son’s name at a sporting event is something my husband and I never thought we would experience since we learned of his diagnosis eleven years ago. We are so grateful for the Lacrosse community who have been so welcoming to new players. And for all the times my son does make a play, my husband and I watch from the stands with tears in our eyes, thinking what a life changing experience this has been for all of us.