Magazine article Momentum

Sports Activities Help Autistic Students Develop Skills

Magazine article Momentum

Sports Activities Help Autistic Students Develop Skills

Article excerpt

While collaborative sports may confuse students on the autistic spectrum, individualized activities help develop skills and confidence

Though I am not the most athletic person, sports always have offered me entertainment, great extra-curricular opportunities for my students and the occasional teaching tool to engage a class. Since becoming a principal, I have seen how sports have provided a way for educators to understand and help students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) such as Aspergers or Pervasive-Developmental Disorder.

When students play a sport, they learn skills that go beyond the techniques and rules for the game. Skills such as perseverance, sportsmanship and collaboration are developed as the game is learned and played. The scenarios that unfold during practice and competition can replicate situations in daily life and help students to understand how to approach challenges and successes in other contexts. Not only can sports scenarios represent daily life, they can characterize situations that arise in our classrooms and help us to learn ways to better serve our students, particularly those on the Autism Spectrum.

Autistic Students May Straggle with Collaborative Sports

Collaborative sports such as basketball, soccer or volleyball are commonly found in schools. During these sports, students are expected to move at a fast pace and to work interdependently with teammates toward the one goal of scoring points. These sports offer students many helpful skills, but these sports also embody situations in which children with autism commonly struggle.

Basketball requires players to adapt constantly to new situations. A change in strategy by the other team forces coaches to create new plays during the game, leading to quick transitions for the players. The scenario on the basketball court represents a common, real world situation that can challenge students with autism.

Children with ASD seek structure and adherence to a set plan or schedule. They find calm in knowing what to expect as they move throughout the day. Changes to this structure can occur, but sufficient time is needed for a student to transition and understand the change. The expectations on the basketball court can look like our classrooms throughout the school day. Students are asked to move quickly from practicing reading, to music class, to getting ready for lunch. A day with no schedule or time for a student to transition to the next subject can cause anxiety, leading a student with ASD to be nervous, making learning and focusing on tasks difficult.

Just as a basketball game suggests the difficulties of chaotic schedules, soccer highlights the struggle students with autism face interacting with others. On the soccer field, players often determine their actions by reading the facial expressions and body language of their teammates. This interaction helps players to respond quickly and to outmaneuver the other team.

The ability to read facial expressions and body language is a struggle for children on the spectrum because they can have an increased ego-centric focus with limited interest in the actions or needs of others. Students who participate in social groups and receive instruction or role play the meanings of facial and body cues are able to increase their understanding of these interactions, but their understanding can be limited to what they have learned.

Just as non-verbal cues occur across a soccer field before a big goal, teachers use nonverbal cues to refocus students or to express acceptance or disagreement with a student. These subtle interactions can be ineffective when communicating with students with autism.

While basketball and soccer show us skills that represent challenging situations, indoor volleyball offers a scenario highlighting the sensory needs of students with autism. A volleyball game can fill a gymnasium with fans who want to cheer their team to victory. The fans in the bleachers encourage the team by clapping, yelling and stomping. …

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