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Alison Tootill
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Coaching People with Autism

PE teacher Alison Tootill explains some of her strategies for coaches who work with people with Autism, including some questions coaches can ask themselves to ensure they are able to support athletes who are on the autistic spectrum

Imagine you are meeting a group of young people for the first time and you are coaching a session. It's an athletics session and the group is a variety of participants, probably aged about 10 - 12 years. You reach this conclusion by the size of participants. You start the session and it’s relatively quiet - no questions asked and not a great response of either motivation or enthusiasm.

In fact, nobody is looking at what you are doing – but, hey ho, you carry on as most coaches do (remember most coaches are kinaesthetic learners anyway). You carry on with a graphic explanation as to what the group are going to achieve this session (lesson objectives - as any good coaches do) and explain what the end result will look like. The group goes off and does the complete opposite - in fact some participants do nothing or just wander off.

Consider for a moment:

  • How well do you know your participants in sport?
  • How do you know if a participant in your group is on the Autistic Spectrum or has a Special Educational Need?
  • How many coaches are aware of the types of learning difficulties that some performers have? 

I would say not a great deal, often because most participants with a learning difficulty do not act differently from anyone else.

How can I identify the needs of a group?

It is a preconception by many people, outside of the SEN (Special Educational Needs) environment, that these participants are ‘different’.

In fact they are no different from you or I - the difference is in how they process information and how certain factors can influence how they learn or are able to be coached by others.

If we go back to the above scenario and I was dealing with a group for the first time, there would be several questions I would initially ask the organiser:

  • What is the range and needs of the group? Ask directly what their impairment type is.
  • Are any of the participants on the Autistic Spectrum? If so, how will this effect my coaching?
  • How do any environmental issues affect their learning or coaching?
  • What is the group’s prior learning? How much do they know and where from?
  • What are their ages?
  • Are there any triggers to certain behaviours or any problems that may hinder any progress or development to the young people's coaching?
  • How and where can the skills coached be developed further?
  • How can I plan this session to differentiate for all the students' needs?
  • How am I going to approach this session?
  • What will I (the coach) feel at the end of the session?

So, when dealing with a group like this, these would be my top tips to deal with the above questions:

Special Educational Needs are classed in several categories

  • They range from Emotional and Behavioral Disorders to profound and Multiple Learning Disorders. And with most impairments come a learning difficulty - this may be moderate or severe. To cap it all off there is the Autistic Spectrum - called so because it is so wide and the diagnosis so big (ranging from mild to severe). Do not think Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man’ because that is a Disney view of an impairment. Autism is an impairment that is specific to each individual, and something that a coach needs to know about.
  • Participants with a learning difficulty may take longer to process information, so keep that in mind when planning a session (don’t move onto the next skill too quickly).

The range of the Autistic Spectrum is massive

  • It can show itself in several ways such as a social impairment, communication difficulties and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. A great website for further, specialist information around autism is the National Autistic Society.
  • In my early years of teaching SEN young people, I once told an autistic student to take a running jump (as in, "go away!") and was given the response - ‘Where from?’ This goes to show that language is important and for some individuals concepts need to be concrete not abstract. I once heard a coach say ‘imagine you were walking through a field of grass…’.The participant, a high performing, national cricketer with Aspergers, had no idea what the coach was saying and went off and did their own thing . This goes to show how some students will not listen to the spoken word. In fact, I would dare to say a lot of autistic young people are fantastic visual and kinesthetic learners as they are able to copy and repeat skills or sequences rather than understand what their coaches are saying.
  • To look at one example of this take a look at the You Tube coverage of American Basketball star Jason McElwain, or Google him. He is a real example of watching and repeating learned sequences and drills.
  • Some autistic participants like to spin or turn objects. This needs to be very much encouraged as it a process that is ‘moving the brain’ from one part to another - opening new pathways and bringing the person out of their comfort zone.

Be aware of environmental issues

  • A big space can be daunting as it appears to have no boundaries. Be aware of this and maybe play a little warm up game to show boundaries of the space you may want to use.
  • Noise can work in two ways. Good: May be a distraction and coaches or teachers can work on a thematic approach whereby participants relate to an activity. For example, ‘High School Musical’ is excellent for coaching basketball as it can be related to and has a fantastic ‘bouncing’ beat Bad: Too much noise and too many distractions. For some participants with Autism or ADHD (Attention Hyper Activity Disorder) this is bad. Imagine being stood in front of a hundred Television screens - all blaring out at the same time - which one do you watch ? It can be too distracting to learn for some.
  • It is all about knowing your participants.

What do participants already know?

  • The ‘label’ of an impairment at times can do a person down. Do you think Michael Phelps (ADHD) would like you to tell him how to swim? For those of you who are unsure of this I would say either ask or play some good fundamentals games to gauge how much participants know and what they can do.

Size is not an indication of age

Points to think about here include:

  • Age appropriateness. Some students may look younger than they are.
  • Language. Never talk down to someone, despite their age or perceived impairment.
  • Speed of language. Don’t talk too fast or be too technical . If an individual doesn’t get it, try again or do something else. Try a demonstration or even better: Less talk, more practical stuff!

Be aware of triggers

  • It may just be a word: calling someone ‘naughty‘ or ‘bad’ springs to mind, or it may simply be an object. One example of this is that some Autistic young people do not like balls invading their personal space. Replace the ball for a balloon which is much more tactile and fun.
  • Remember these individuals can be very much in their own world and space. They may feel stressed when something like a ball invades their own space.

Challenge participants where you can

  • The Playground to Podium strategy looks at how participants can enjoy sport from a fun level to a national podium level. Look at some of our most talented Paralympians. One example is Sasha Kindred. A swimmer who was told he would never walk. His mother disputed this and found a swimming club that would drive Sasha to eventually becoming one of GB's best Paralympic swimmers of his generation. Sasha came to my school and did a presentation about his life and his achievements. He inspired not only the students but the staff as well.
  • Each impairment has a specific classification relating to their technical ability and Governing Bodies have specific exit routes into sport at whatever level.

Differentiation - a big word for ‘think out of the box!’

Choose the task:

  • Think resources: Balloons, bean bags, bats for different purposes.
  • Think about changing the game.
  • Think about adapting the game to suit the needs of the participants.
  • Think differently. Simplify to achieve.

Approach

  • Approach all sessions with an open mind. One piece of advice given to me was "don’t be afraid of what things look like." It stuck with me and it works.
  • Don’t be afraid of trying new things. If it doesn’t work you’ll know straight away and change it straight away. Simple!

How I will feel at the end of the session?

  • Good? For me, as a teacher or a coach, it is important to remember that if it is possible to have every one in the group access some part of the session, at some time, in some way, then I have done a good job!
  • Also, who puts a measure on fun?! As a teacher and coach most, no, every session needs the fun element to it. It is what makes the activity memorable and keeps participants irrespective of their ability, coming back for more. Don’t ever underestimate how much the participants have enjoyed a session as they may not show it or make any eye contact.

So to conclude ... Do you know who you are coaching?

There are a lot of factors to consider and a lot of issues that coaches may feel are out of their depth and capability. But from experience, I have found that by not only bringing coaches out of their comfort zone of coaching high class (or aspiring high class performers), they have extended their range and ability to coach anyone and everyone.

To me this is the true meaning of inclusion and sport for all.

Related Content

If you enjoyed this article, then you might be interested in the blog 'The hidden condition – a coach’s guide to autism' on ConnectedCoaches – UK Coaching's free online community for coaches of all sports and activities:

And see also the following articles in the Coaching Tips section of the UK Coaching website:

  • Coaching People with Autism

    View
  • Coaching People with Asperger Syndrome

    View
  • Coaching People with ADHD

    View

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Alison Tootill