Playing youth sports can be overwhelming for children regardless of age or athletic ability. But add to the equation a disorder that is becoming more and more prevalent in today's society and the experience can go beyond overwhelming. In fact, it can be downright traumatic--for athlete and coach.
The saying is true, that no two children are alike. But when coaching kids you can usually find similarities and tendencies between kids within a certain age group. Two kids the same age with Asperger's syndrome are not only different, but the degree of difference between them can be significant.
Like all parents, those raising children with Asperger's want them to participate in all areas and activities of life whenever possible, and this includes youth sports. For some parents, getting their child involved with a Special Olympics program is the answer. But for others, who want their child integrated with other children without disabilities, the typical youth sports teams can still be a viable option.
However, while every league is open to children with Asperger's, or any disability for that matter, the challenge comes when, unlike in a special school setting or on a Special Olympics team, a volunteer is faced with having to coach a child with Asperger's. And most have no idea where to begin.
"Unlike a child with autism, a child with Asperger's understands strategies like offense and defense and boundaries, and also the difference between winning and losing," says Judy Clark, an adaptive physical education teacher in the well-known Delaware Autism Program at the Brennen school in Delaware. "And that often misleads coaches into thinking there will be no significant behavior issues, and that's not the case."
Clark says that kids with Asperger's will fixate on a certain way to do something like shoot a basketball or stand on defense in a certain spot. And it's when, for whatever reason, they aren't able to do whatever they are focused on doing, that they display a certain inappropriate behavior that interferes with the flow of the activity and usually results in them being removed.
As a youth sports coach, I always tell parents to please let me know if there is anything "different" about their child I should know about, and if there is, what suggestions they might have to help me better communicate with their child, which hopefully leads to a positive impact on the child's experience during practices and games.
"I always had to have a conversation ahead of time with the coach of any activity my daughter was involved in," says Ruth Coughlan, whose daughter has an intellectual disability. "Because of her condition the instructor and I would discuss possible accommodations for her that would make the experience more enjoyable and meaningful."
These "differences" can range from the child watching the parents go through a recent divorce to having trouble following directions to having Asperger's syndrome. The type of "difference" really is irrelevant. Rather, it's the communication of that "difference" to the coach that is the most critical.
"Knowledge of the child really helps," Clark reiterated. …