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How to Start a Sports Program for Autistic Kids

by Melinda Kedro

The Autism Youth Sports League emphasizes that children with autism can benefit from participation in an organized sports program by learning body and spatial awareness and socialization skills. If you are interested in starting your own sports program for children with autism, you will benefit from seeking the participation and support of other families in your community. Starting and developing a successful program will require time, effort, and commitment and will most likely be a gradual process that evolves over time.

Finding Participants

Use social networking sites such as Meetup, Craigslist or Facebook to create a post outlining the sports program for children with autism you want to develop. Include information about yourself, your location, what you are looking for in participants (people to help collect funds and find potential practice space) and the possible age ranges for child participants.

Gather information on potential participants and do your own research simultaneously. Autism Families CONNECTicut is an organization that offers a sports program to children ages 3 to 12. The program is facilitated by a professional clinician to ensure adequate instruction by an individual experienced in working with children with autism. Contact local agencies, such as a children's hospital or behavioral treatment center, to get in touch with a clinician who could assist in leading a sports program.

Plan an initial get-together to review the intent of the program once you have received several responses from interested families. Decide what each family can contribute. For example, one family may have access to information on potential funding, and another family may be able to help find a space that can be used regularly for practices and games. You will have more success starting a program if you ask other families to support the cause through their own efforts.

Securing Space and Equipment

Contact local venues to inquire about possible rental of space. Your local YMCA can be a helpful resource. Even if space is not available through the YMCA, the organization may be able to point you in the right direction. The neighborhood community center, a nearby church, a sports arena or a local park are all options for practice space. You may find that your location changes depending on what type of activity you plan for the day. Keep in mind that some spaces will require a fee for use.

Plan ahead and be sure to have access to appropriate equipment for safety purposes. Depending on which sports you choose to offer, special equipment may be necessary. For example, if you plan to offer a session on gymnastics, you will need to supply floor mats, age-appropriate balance beams, and other such devises and safety padding for the children. Sports equipment is available for rental through various organizations, and you can ask parents to supply personal safety equipment for their own children.

Structure your program so the type of sport activity varies from one session to the next. This will provide variety for the children and allow families to get a sense of which sport is best suited to their child. Use a group email service to send out notifications of where you will meet and the time of the event on any given day. Call ahead to make necessary reservations for space. For example, if you plan a group swimming activity, call the local pool in advance to make proper arrangements.

Designing the Program

Work with a professional clinician and other participating families to determine what types of activities will be offered and when, for what length of time and to outline the general structure of the program. You may decide to offer a 3-week course on gymnastics, meeting once a week, and then plan a family hiking day for the next week, followed by a family bike-riding outing the following week.

Choose sports that are appropriate for children with autism. According to Dr. Anthony Alessi, some of the best sports for children with autism include swimming, martial arts, horseback riding, track and field and basketball. Other advantageous choices for sport activities are bike riding, hiking and gymnastics. Often, children with autism struggle with effective communication and social skills, so choose sports that incorporate individual focus and minimal competitiveness to reduce possible causes of stress.

Find different sports instructors for the types of activities you plan to offer through the program. For example, if families are interested in a martial arts session, contact several local martial arts to schools to inquire about special instruction for your particular group of children. You may also be able to find an independent contractor who can offer specialized instruction through a website such as Craigslist that advertises professional services.

Funding the Program

Research various options for monetary contributions. Chances are that some of the activities you plan for the sports program will require funding. Unless you want to front all of the money yourself, it is beneficial to explore different financial avenues. Start by discussing funding with participating families. It is possible that you may be able to pool together enough resources to fund the program week by week or on a monthly basis. You may want to require a monthly fee for participation. In that case, creating a contract to join the program would be advantageous.

Research numerous funding options through the Autism Speaks website. The organization offers a comprehensive list of different grants for which families can apply. The Autism Support Network is another resource to research funding options through grants.

Sign up for an online account through the Ever Ribbon website. Networking through Ever Ribbon is a way that you can collect donations for your sports program from people in your community who want to support your efforts. The online organization also offers tips on how to generate more donations and how to create awareness of the program in your area.

Items you will need
  • Various sporting equipment
  • Professional clinician
  • Specialized instructors

Tips

  • Emphasize the necessity for parent participation. Children with autism will need the support of their parents for supervision and appropriate guidance.
  • Organize your group for a specific age range, like 3- to 6-year-olds or 7- to 10-year-olds, so activities can be age-appropriate for all participants.
  • Discuss how to properly report funding you receive through donations, grants and fees with an accountant.

Warnings

  • Always consult with your child's pediatrician and therapist before he begins a new exercise program.
  • Consider having families sign a waiver to protect yourself in the event of injuries.

About the Author

With more than 10 years experience in early childhood education, Melinda Kedro holds a Masters degree in education, teaching certification through the Association Montessori Internationale and is a licensed childcare provider through the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Photo Credits

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