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Guest Blog: How coaches can create sensory environments for autistic children participating in sport

About the author: Now working as a writer, Jackie Edwards, started her career in finance and banking, but after becoming a mother, refocused and decided to spend more time with her family and especially her son, who, like his mother has autism. When she's not writing, she volunteers for a number of local mental health charities and also has a menagerie of pets to look after.

Physical activity is a crucial part of every child’s development - it’s fundamental to keeping healthy and fit, it promotes socialisation and team work, and, more than anything else, it’s fun.  These things are even more relevant when talking about children on the autistic spectrum, who often struggle with social interactions and can also suffer from issues with motor functioning. It’s imperative that autistic children are not excluded from sport, but it’s equally important that the organisers and coaches understand that the needs of these children are different from neurotypical kids.  

One of the ways that coaches can ensure that autistic children get the most out of sport is by creating environments whereby the sensory input is calibrated for their needs.  There’s much research that demonstrates the benefits of sensory stimulation to all children when it comes to learning, and with autistic children, the challenge is finding the right balance that doesn’t tip over into overstimulation, which can be confusing or upsetting for some.

Differences in reactions to sensory environments

One of the most crucial things for a coach in this situation is to ensure that they have a clear understanding of each individual autistic child’s condition. For example, some children on the spectrum become extremely anxious and upset in noisy environments.  In this instance, the coach should concentrate on maximising the sensory stimuli that are not auditory, for example setting up brightly coloured cones, or having soft balls to play with, whilst minimising the possibility for excessive screaming and shouting.  
In another example, as some autistic children struggle with complex motor functions, a coach may want to engage them in water-based activities. Because basic swimming manoevures require less complex motor functions, it is often easier for an autistic child to master, and the sensory nature of being in the water can be combined with visual stimulation, such as coloured floats.

Appropriate sports For autistic children

Often autistic children struggle with complex team sports, because, not only do they require more sophisticated motor functions, they also depend upon intra-team communication, of both the verbal and non-verbal variety. In addition, autistic children may have a more enhanced sense of physical boundaries, and therefore the contact element of some team sports can be upsetting.  

Activities such as swimming, track and field, horse-riding, hiking and cycling can prove a great deal more suited to their needs, whilst also offering the coach plenty of opportunities to create a sensory environment. The regularity of the track can appeal, as can the colours of the bibs. Cycling allows for the feel of the air on their skin and the rubber of the handle grips in their hands. Hiking can allow children to not feel pressured to communicate, whilst offering the visual stimulation of beautiful countryside. With horse-riding, the feel and smell of the horses, and the sound of their whinnying has proved so successful for autistic children that ‘hippotherapy’ has become a recognised therapeutic practice for autistic children and adults alike.

Ultimately, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for creating positive sensory environments for autistic children to enjoy sports.  Each child will bring their own set of needs, and a coach needs to learn as much as possible about those needs before planning the environment.  It’s a lot of work, but the rewards, for both child and coach, can be enormous.

Jackie Edwards, Writer

NB The opinions expressed across our blogs (guest or otherwise) are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Coaching, its management or staff. UK Coaching is not responsible for the content of external websites.


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