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UK Coaching Team
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How Learning About Autism Can Help Deliver Great Coaching

UK Coaching Community Coach of the year award winner Alice Tribedi is a dance coach who works with children with learning difficulties. In recognition of World Autism Day, Alice caught up with UK Coaching’s Jack Kelly to discuss how building your understanding of autism and adapting your sessions can have a huge positive impact on the people that you coach

Great coaching is person-centred: it involves delivering sessions that recognise and meet the needs of every individual who attends.

As such, understanding the nuances and individualism of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - a developmental disability that affects people in a variety of ways – is an important part of delivering great coaching experiences.

Alice acknowledges that there is no ‘one size fits all' approach when coaching people with autism.

Finding out what helps each individual before the class is key to delivering a great session. ASD has a huge spectrum which means you need to coach everyone as an individual.”

Preperation is key

Anxiety in an unfamiliar situation can be a characteristic associated with ASD.  Alice shares some tips on how to prepare sessions to make participants with autism feel in control and safe – an important step in making your sessions more accessible.

“The first thing I always find that helps me prepare when I coach people with autism is to put myself into their position. How are they feeling and viewing the world? What do they want to get from a coach or a dance teacher?

"I learn about their physical needs, so I provide chairs, cushions and safe spaces to help create a flexible structure where participants can take breaks. Preparing calming strategies during emotional moments, such as breathing exercises and gentle music, can do wonders in relaxing a situation. For children, soft toys and blowing bubbles can help during an episode."

Autism can present many different challenges for the coach, and Alice recommends seeking support to enhance the experience for you and the people you coach.

She says: “If the person with autism has someone with them, like a parent or carer, it's important to talk to them and get as much information as possible. Likes and dislikes, calming methods and anything else that can help me deliver the best session possible. Always include the person or child in the conversation too, because it's their experience that matters most. This helps me seek clarity for my structure and helps with my flexibility to adapt a class.”

The importance of verbal and nonverbal communication

While Alice’s sessions help participants to develop their skills and communication, fun is always her top priority.

To deliver those goals, she believes that being aware of how you interact with people with autism is vital.

I always use their names when communicating with them. I provide clear and welcoming instructions to help them feel at ease and knowledgeable during the session."

“Nonverbal communication is also crucial. I smile at them even if they are not, because they may be smiling inside! Eye contact is important, but can sometimes be unnerving. Gentle eye contact is great. Using props or your surroundings can make the person feel less under pressure. I curate my class so that my dance often entails things like thumbs up, waving and smiling.

“Sometimes they lead the dance, and instead I try and mirror and match their movements to give them more control.”

Being aware of stresses and trigger points

Alice believes that coaches with a broader knowledge of autism will be more aware of stresses and trigger points in helping to avoid difficult situations.

Once you know an individual, you can help create a relaxing atmosphere during a stressful situation.

Simple things like sitting on the floor and gently tapping your fingers can relax a participant. Some people with autism find clapping disturbing, so you should ask everyone first if they are okay with it."

“Stimming (this is often a way to deal with stress and uncertainty) can occur and can be characterised by hand flapping, for example. If the person wishes to do this, I let them, and gently lead by matching their movements, then slowing it down until they are following my lead. By using gentle leading, not telling, it helps build a connection with the person you are coaching.”

The beauty of coaching people with autism

“It’s not always easy. I worked with an autistic child who had very difficult tantrums. But I knew she loved horses, so when she was having an episode, I always opened her book of horses and we would spend a few minutes looking at it until she felt better. The main thing I could do was stay calm because she needed me to be calm for her.”

Alice explains that working with people with autism is really rewarding.

But it's all worth it because she is incredible, and like anyone with autism, they deserve the opportunity to participate in sport and physical activity.

Children and adults with autism are an absolute joy to work with. I find it so rewarding watching them progress and have fun. It's beautiful and an honour to be part of."

Alice Tribedi works as a dance teacher for elderly and disabled people. She was a UK Coaching Community Coach of the year award winner in 2021. Alice teaches in London and Oxford. She also runs dance workshops for older people at Pineapple Studios. Alice is branching out now to work with disabled children and children with learning difficulties. She also entertains in dementia care homes and works with stroke patients and those who have lost their sight, improving their movement and physical abilities through music movement singing and dance.

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