This week’s post is a continuation of our interview last week with sports psychologist Dr. Carrie Hastings who works for the Play Like a Champion Today Program at the University of Notre Dame. This week she discusses some of the specific obstacles autistic athletes and their coaches encounter and how best to address them.
What kinds of problems do autistic athletes encounter as a result of working with coaches who misunderstand autism?
In addition to challenges with verbal skills, those with ASD can face deficits in nonverbal communication skills, often displaying limited eye contact and unusual gestures or facial expressions. This can appear disrespectful and result in negative evaluations. Athletes with ASD may also have difficulty understanding slang, idioms, irony, and sarcasm, which can be common within the language of coaches.
Many coaches are unaware of the sensory integration difficulties that many children with ASD deal with. For example, some individuals are very sensitive to touch. Where a high five might be reinforcing for one athlete, someone with ASD may actually experience physical pain from a high five. (In such cases, providing stickers, small tokens, or verbal praise would be more appropriate.) In contrast, someone with a high threshold for pain may not realize the severity of an injury and keep playing on it, doing more harm. Research has shown that children with ASD are 2-3x more likely than typically developing children to endure a severe injury that requires medical attention. Additionally, an athlete’s hypersensitivity to sound may result in an inability to block out sounds – such as background noise (e.g., crowd yelling), which can lead to difficulty concentrating.
Coaches can fail to prepare athletes with ASD for the unexpected. Those with ASD can have trouble coping with transitions or changes to routine. When a game goes into overtime, for instance, an athlete with ASD may have difficulty processing that and regulating his or her emotional and/or behavioral response. This can leave a coach feeling helpless and likely unable to address that athlete’s reaction at such a crucial time in the competition.
Another important consideration that many coaches are unaware of, is the prevalence of bullying among those with developmental disorders. Almost half (46.3%) of adolescents with ASD are victims of bullying. Of children with ASD who have difficulty making friends but want to interact with others, 57% are bullied, compared to only 25% of children who prefer to play alone and 34% of children who will play only if approached. With these statistics in mind, coaches must be vigilant and attend to the vulnerability of athletes with ASD to being bullied.
What are the most common issues parents come to you for? Are there any patterns?
Parents are often worried about their child being bullied and/or isolated from peers. Bullying is an evil truth in our society, and as depicted in the aforementioned statistics, those with ASD can be especially vulnerable. Parents worry that involving their child in sports will increase their susceptibility to being a target of bullying. Sadly, it is a valid concern. The same lack of awareness and understanding of ASD that coaches can have, can cause teammates to react negatively to a peer who has ASD. For instance, those with ASD can have limited capacity for empathy, causing them to be “brutally honest” with others. This can be (mis)interpreted by teammates as rudeness or meanness, provoking a mean or aggressive response. When this happens, parents who had the intention of helping their child develop friendships can feel like their plan backfired, ultimately feeling guilty, helpless, and responsible.
Parents also waver on whether or not their child with ASD should participate in sports at all. Because of the very nature of a spectrum disorder, the severity of symptoms ranges from individual to individual. So, while I believe sport participation is generally a positive for most kids, participation in team sports is not necessarily ideal for everyone.
Is there any way to proactively screen different sports, programs, or coaches before enrolling an autistic child? What factors should parents look for or assess prior to enrolling in an activity? How about after it has begun?
Unfortunately, there is no formalized screening process. Some believe that water-based sports and activities are better suited for those with ASD. I don’t think children with ASD should automatically be limited to a certain sport or deprived of playing a sport they are interested in. I do recommend that parents ask the league organizers of a particular sport whether or not they have coaches who are familiar with working with athletes with ASD. If not, advocate for a training program to become part of the preseason coach training. Then, schedule a meeting with your child’s coaches. Describe your child’s symptoms and encourage them to familiarize themselves with approaches that can help them effectively coach your child. Together, explore ways of keeping the athlete engaged, even during the “down time” of sport. They can access materials online or participate in a clinic. Play Like a Champion Today’s workshop is 1.5 hours long, and provides basic tools to equip coaches to better accommodate athletes with ASD.
Parents need to remain mindful of the level of severity of their child’s ASD symptoms. Some individuals with a mild level of severity may be able to integrate into a team setting much more easily than more severe cases. Those with more severe symptoms may simply do better in a group with other ASD athletes of a similar level of functioning and a trained group of facilitators. I do not feel that sport participation should automatically be ruled out even for more severe cases of ASD. Activities can always be accommodated to meet the skill level of the participant. Having said that, individuals prone to self-injurious behavior may not be able to engage in athletic activities, as this tendency can be triggered when a child is frustrated, anxious, or wants to avoid a task. Whether or not an athlete is prone to self-harm, parents and coaches should check in frequently with athletes to obtain firsthand feedback about their athletic experience.
What’s the most important piece of advice you can offer parents of autistic children who want to participate in competitive or non-competitive sports?
As previously mentioned, understand that sports may not be appropriate for your child. Having said that, it may be that a child just needs to find the right fit – the right team, the right coach, the right sport. So, let the child try different things and don’t give up easily.
Advocate for your child by way of spreading awareness among your local sport community that there are training programs out there to better equip coaches with the tools necessary to work effectively with children who have ASD. Many coaches do not know this. Provide sport organizations with resources to pass along to their coaching staff and remind them to promote inclusiveness and acceptance.
There is also a lot to be said for the informal pick-up game. Join forces with understanding parents of kind kids. Get a group together on weekends or once a month and have the parents facilitate an informal sport contest or even just a few outdoor games. This still presents opportunities for social integration, adaptation to some (loose) rules, and practice with coping skills. Consider not keeping score and just relishing in some laughs. No pressure. Just pure fun.
Have a question for Dr. Carrie? She can be reached at her email helpline address: firstname.lastname@example.org