Sports Program Targets Children With Autism

For children on the autism spectrum, learning a sport using applied behavioral analysis could be the most effective way to get exercise outside, unwind after a long week of school and therapies, and learn behaviors to have more success in and out of school. But many youth sports programs nationally focus largely on teaching to a wider-net of athletes, including those who are not on the spectrum.

Break It Down Total Sports is a non-profit organization in southern California set up to fill a void for children with special needs. Stephanie Dale, a behavioral consultant for schools, co-founded the agency to develop a sports-focused program tailored to the specific skill set of children on the spectrum.

“In sports, there’s a lot of exposure to the ball and equipment and it doesn’t really target the skills that many children on the spectrum have,” she says. Dale and her team of coaches use a unique coaching approach that assesses behavior and delivers direction so the child-athlete can more easily follow the mechanics of the exercise. They teach the necessary skills but apply behavioral analysis to each drill or game or skill.

“We use the sport as a vehicle to teach the behaviors, staying with the group for example, then we break down the skills and build them back up in a systematic way.”

There are four sports per year depending on how many children are signed up for the program, including soccer starting this fall. “We teach them those skills so then they can transition back to their community sport within their population,” said Dale.

There are 2 coaches for each child-athlete and the program uses ‘shadows’ to assist the child individually before learning from a coach. Shadows ‘reinforce’ skills and build motivation so the children want to attend every Saturday session.

The program doesn’t currently work with health insurers but is looking to in the future. They try to provide as much financial help as they can afford. “The first class is always free so the parent can come to see if it’s a good fit,” said Dale. The cost is $450 a season and that goes towards payment for coaches and equipment. Break it Down Total Sports doesn’t make a profit.

The coaches are all trained in behavior principles and how to provide skill and build independence. They don’t have to be licensed but they do provide the strategy that the children need.

Most of the activities take place in city parks in Los Angeles at local basketball hoops or baseball fields.

“I think the ABA field as a whole is pretty rigid still–a lot of agencies don’t focus on what the children are working with,” says Dale. “Many children already do a lot of therapies during the week, so it’s tough for them to make it on a Saturday morning, but the results are rewarding.”

Nationwide, there is a movement of coaches who volunteer for soccer, basketball or baseball coaching and after a few minutes at their first practice realize that most of their roster are kids on the spectrum. Organizations like Positive Coaching Alliance have taken strides to support different styles of coaching. I’ve done this for 15 years now and started to see more kids with asperger’s or tourettes or other spectrum conditions – you quickly realize that you not only have to take your mind off winning, but have to change how you teach skills. I have coached at an inner-city middle school in Hartford since 2010, and we use hula hoops and foam balls and smaller games – with basketball, we asked kids to show us how they would look at a wrist watch as a way to demonstrate how to protect the ball, or asked them to mimic a helicopter to illustrate how to turn with their pivot foot. Sometimes it worked, many times it didn’t, but the idea was to make the skill memorable and prove to the kid’s that they could have success.

Dale’s program in southern California is one example of specialized programs that blends innovation in treatment, like applied behavioral analysis, with an age-old childhood pastime. For parents, the value in these out-of-school programs is significant not just for the behavioral benefits, but for what more than 85% in our poll this year say they wouldn’t get to see if their child were part of a traditional rec sports league.

See this essay about one 9-year-old with autism and their experience with sports.

-Report by Erin O’Donnell and Bryan Cote

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