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Coaching young people with autism

In this article, Special Olympics New Zealand share some key considerations for coaches working with young people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

Athletes are the heart of Special Olympics and the programmes on offer allow everyone to find success, joy, and friendship. Sports specific programmes play a key role in our local communities and provide opportunities to learn new skills and make new friends whilst increasing fitness and confidence levels. 

Over 20% of Special Olympics athletes in New Zealand are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and approximately 93,000 people across New Zealand have the same diagnosis (Autism NZ). Characteristics and behaviours linked to ASD span a wide spectrum and lead to a different way of seeing the world and networking with others. 

Is coaching an athlete with Autism Spectrum Disorder the same as coaching an athlete in mainstream sport? 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how people perceive, think, communicate and interact. It shows its across of spectrum, and which can range from athletes who are pedantic about certain things to those who are often referred to as having a milder ASD or ‘high functioning autism’. 

Each individual has different characteristics, but generally most individuals with ASD share a difference in the areas of: 

  • Social communication and interaction 
  • Restricted and repetitive behaviour patterns 
  • Sensory processing 

These three characteristics can make coaching individuals with ASD a challenge, particularly for coaches with limited understanding or experience with working with individuals with ASD. 

Considerations when coaching athletes with autism 

Coaches who are new to working with athletes with autism will often search for reasons why something will not work, rather than seeking a way to make it work. This is a regular occurrence across the sector and SONZ suggest coaches focus on the ability of an individual and not the disability.  

We also suggest coaches consider the following: 

  1. Understand your current or default coaching methods. Make simple modifications and adaptations to these methods over trying a new coaching style you are not comfortable with 
  2. Take gradual steps and start at a slower pace when introducing new things into your practice 
  3. Athletes with ASD are allowed and expect to be challenged  
  4. Like mainstream athletes, it is ok for athletes with ASD to make mistakes and learn from them (in a positive coaching environment) 
  5. ‘Ability first’ should be the key focus for coaches 
  6. Encourage athletes with ASD to participate in more than one sport and try other types of physical activity 
  7. Coaches must be good, positive role models for athletes with an ASD 
  8. Understand each individual athlete and know how to motivate them if they are not feeling 100% 
  9. Work within a routine if possible and try and stick to the structure  
  10. Use visual cues, demonstrations and even video as much as possible. Majority of athletes with an ASD are visual learners

Online learning – coaching athletes with autism 

Special Olympics New Zealand have created an online learning opportunity for those coaches who want to do more to support athletes with an ASD on their sporting journey. This module will benefit: 

  • Coaches wanting a deeper understanding of what to expect when coaching an athlete with an ASD 
  • Coaches wanting simple ideas on how to make their coaching environments more inclusive 
  • Anyone interested in getting involved in the disability sector 

What will I learn by completing the online module? 

This module offers a basic introduction and focuses on the following topics:

  • Defining autism in a way that everyone can understand 
  • Insights into what you might expect when coaching athletes with autism 
  • How to adapt your coaching methodology to promote an inclusive coaching environment

Follow the link Coaching athletes with autism (specialolympics.org.nz) to find out more and complete the online module. 

About Special Olympics New Zealand 

Special Olympics New Zealand (SONZ) is an organisation committed to creating a new world of inclusion and community, where every single person is accepted and welcomed, regardless of ability or disability. We are helping to make the world a better, healthier, and more enjoyable place – one athlete, one volunteer, one family member at a time.  

The goal of Special Olympics is to reach out to the 200 million people in the world with an intellectual disability (ID). Currently in NZ, we have over 5000 athletes and there are over 5 million more spread across the globe. Special Olympics plays an important part in the lives of many people with an intellectual disability. 

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