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Guest Blog: Understanding Asperger Syndrome

Our latest guest blog comes from an anonymous coach who looks at Asperger Syndrome and how it has affected his son's experience of being coached:

I recently have been going through a very tough time at home as one of my children has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. It isn’t the diagnosis or the health of my son that has been the tough bit – HE is the best son anyone could wish for and nothing has changed. He is still the same as always and I love him to bits.

So what has been the tough bit and how does it affect coaching or his coaches.

When he played football there was a lot of angst. He is very “everything should be black or white – no grey”. So if a coach during a game at training, where my son’s team were winning by a couple of clear goals, suddenly went “next goal wins” and of course the opposition would score thus making the losing team the winners…….well watch out! His way of dealing with things is to scream and shout at the person who changed the rules, throw things at anyone who tries to talk to him and basically refuse to engage with anyone. Now I know what you’re thinking – spoilt brat. But in his mind the rules are if one team scores more than the other then they win. To “move the goalposts” and change the rules does not compute with him. He was winning or losing and now you’ve changed it.

Standing in line is another one. If the coach says “line up there”, he will line up there. If another participant then stands somewhere else or doesn’t join the back of the queue but pushes in somewhere else my son can’t deal with that. The instruction was “line up there” and not stand where you want to. And then he can’t grasp that when he says to the coach “they’re not standing in the right place” the coach would dismiss it with “don’t be silly” or “oh it doesn’t matter”. Well I’m here to tell you it does matter – oh it matters to a little boy who has followed instructions to the letter and then a coach let’s others do what they want!! Oh it matters.

And looking people in the eye. He finds that so difficult but we as people insist “Look at me when I’m talking to you” and I have to say us coaches are the worst. We think because we have this authority then respect is guaranteed and when it isn’t forth coming we can’t cope. We say things like “you wouldn’t act like this is your teachers!” or “who do you think you are!”

We felt that team sports were not the best environment for him and he now excels at Athletics but even here the coaches have 101 athletes to deal with and often time is short and they can’t make everyone wait their turn etc.

And here’s the crux of the piece – he has been actively involved in sport since the age of 8 but it is only now at the age of 14 that he has been diagnosed. So for 6 years he has been exhibiting his behaviours that now all make sense but through those years just marked him out as the troublesome kid, the one that didn’t get on with anyone, the one who kept on getting “time outs” or a polite word from the coach to remove him from the club.

And then I think of all the troublesome kids I have coached and all the quiet ones and the noisy ones and the motor mouths and those that didn’t quite fit in.

Every time I have said “look at me when I’m talking to you” All the times I have had to bar someone from a session because they have inappropriately spoken to me. All the times I have said to someone “it doesn’t matter”.

Well it does matter and you know what how many children are out there struggling with undiagnosed challenges? How many parents don’t even know their child could be on the spectrum? How many parents give up taking their child to activities because they can’t deal with the drama and their child must be the worst behaved child in the world?

The difficulty comes when trying to separate bad behaviour from a child with Asperger Syndrome and also if the parent’s aren’t aware we are not the people to start diagnosing children – imagine the problems that can create.

No, in our role as coach, we should be coaching every child to the best of our ability and where we spot these little nuances of behaviour to change our coaching manner to help them. Read up and learn about Asperger and Autism; find out what makes a child more comfortable and able to enjoy every session. Be a smarter coach.

This is my son’s “card” he can give out if he gets into a pickle:

I have a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (Autism Spectrum) a social/communication disability related to autism. Because of my Asperger’s Syndrome, I may:

  • Panic if yelled at, and lash out if touched or physically restrained.
  • Misinterpret things you tell me or ask me to do.
  • Not be able to answer your questions.
  • Appear not to be listening or paying attention.
  • Tend to interpret statements literally.
  • Appear rude or say things that sound tactless, especially when anxious or confused.
  • Have difficulty making eye contact.
  • Speak too loud, too soft, or with unusual intonation.

I would like to cooperate. To help me cooperate, PLEASE:

  • Do not assume that my Asperger’s traits constitute naughty behaviour.
  • Avoid touching me or restraining me.
  • Speak to me in normal, calm, non-confrontational tones.
  • Tell me exactly what I need to do politely, clearly, simply, literally, and step by step.

Some (but not all) aspects of Asperger:

  • Difficulty knowing what to say or how to behave in social situations. Many have a tendency to say the “wrong thing.” They may appear awkward or rude, and unintentionally upset others.
  • Slower than average auditory, visual, or intellectual processing, which can contribute to difficulties keeping up in a range of social settings—a class, a soccer game, a party.
  • A tendency to focus on the details of a given situation and miss the big picture.
  • Inflexibility and resistance to change. Change may trigger anxiety, while familiar objects, settings, and routines offer reassurance. One result is difficulty transitioning from one activity to another: from one class to another, from work time to lunch, from talking to listening. Moving to a new school, new town, or new social role can be an enormous challenge.
  • Feeling somehow different and disconnected from the rest of the world and not “fitting in”—sometimes called “wrong planet” syndrome.
  • Extreme sensitivity—or relative insensitivity—to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or textures. Many people outgrow these sensory issues at least to some extent as they mature.

Source: Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) - www.aane.org/

Recommended further reading for coaches: ‘Can I Tell You About Asperger Syndrome’ by Jude Welton.