In the aftermath of the Olympics and Paralympics, much is being asked about legacy and how we can use this momentous time to inspire people to take up sport. It is a question that is close to my heart as I feel there is still much more work to do to encourage children, particularly disabled children, to have a go at sport.
For my children, their experience of sport has not been a positive one particularly in school where sport has been restricted to gym sessions in the school hall and games on the school field. There is still a huge emphasis on team sports such as football and netball. Fine for those who enjoy it or who can do it but for my autistic children who find sport physically and mentally difficult, PE and games (in a mainstream school) became a very miserable experience. All too often they experienced embarrassment as they physically struggled to keep up with their peers or to understand what was required of them. Often they would be subject to name calling from their peers or suffered the humiliation of never being picked for a game. There was little support or understanding from teachers.
On one occasion one of my daughter’s teachers thought it was enough just to send my daughter’s year group running around the sports field every week. For most children this is probably an acceptable form of exercise but for my aspergers daughter this caused a lot of distress and physical pain to such an extent that she would often come home limping and in tears. Even when I alerted the school to my daughter’s difficulties my concerns were ignored and my daughter was once more made to run round the field. Things became so bad that she even refused to go to school. To some people she may sound like an over-indulgent child and I am sure this was an attitude by the school as I was often ‘put down’ whenever I tried to raise the issue with the SENCO and class teacher. Even when I produced written evidence of the difficulties that aspergers children have with physical exercise, little was done to find a way of including her.
Unfortunately my daughter’s difficulties with sport weren’t only restricted to school but to the sports clubs that are run after school or during the holidays. We’ve had many difficulties finding a group that is willing to understand aspergers and provide appropriate support. As a result my daughter would often pull out as she became increasingly confused or overwhelmed by the evironment she was in. An illustration of this were my daughter’s swimming lessons at our local leisure centre. Initially things started off very well. My daughter showed promise in the water and I often received compliments on her behalf from other parents watching by the poolside. I was hopeful that perhaps we had found something that she could enjoy and feel good about. Unfortunately when she moved from the learner pool to the main pool things started to deteriorate. She struggled to cope with the busyness of the pool, the background music and the group she was in. Instructions were lost on her as she was often distracted by the environment around her. As a result she stalled in her progress and as she stopped achieving her certificates she became more despondent and eventually gave up.
As for my son he has had very similar experiences with sport. If anything the pressure has probably been worse. In a society where most boys do football, my son struggled to fit in with his peers. His physical clumsiness, poor coordination and social difficulties made team sports very hard for him and often he was made to feel useless and unwanted. Even when we looked for alternative sports for him to try we were often thwarted by trainers and teachers who had little understanding of the autism spectrum.
Not surprisingly I now have a daughter and a son who have grown shy of sport. The lack of support has eaten away their confidence and we are now on an uphill struggle to rebuild their self esteem. I would like them to have a go at sport again not because I want them to be top athletes but for their health. However encouraging them to have another go is extremely hard at the moment; they have suffered so many knocks that they have lost interest.
The experiences of my children have shown me that we have much more to do if we are to engage children and teach them the importance of a healthy lifestyle. It is not enough to simply blame parents for their children’s lifestyle because as my case illustrates my children’s attitude to sport has been damaged by schools and clubs who have not practiced proper inclusion.
If we are to improve the experiences for people like my children then we need to stop assuming that children with the higher functioning types of autism can fit in with their neurotypical peers. As Jim Dilmon writes “a youngster with aspergers has different needs and requirements than typically developing students”. Jim Dilmon, himself a young man with aspergers, explains how important it is to understand the specific characteristics of those with aspergers and the implications of how the youngster’s disability may affect his or her ability to participate in physical education. He argues that educators should look at emotional and behavioral characteristics, academic and cognitive functioning, physical and gross motor development, language and speech delays, social skills deficits, and teasing and bullying issues. He stresses that special attention must be paid to these aspects when educating kids with aspergers in inclusive settings. You can read more of Dilmon’s excellent article here which includes plenty of ideas on how to include a child with aspergers in the physical education setting.
Having shared my children’s experiences, I’d love to hear from you. What were your experiences or your children’s experiences of accessing sport? Were teachers or trainers prepared to adapt lessons for you or your child? Did they understand how ASD impacted on physical exercise? Whether good or bad, I’d love to hear your stories.
Deb @ aspieinthefamily