Autism and Sports
You don't hear too much about athletes on the spectrum, probably because parents do not associate autism and sports, and generally shy away from having their autistic kids participate in mainstream sport programs. This needs to change.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. The most recent figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 1 in 59 children in the USA (1 in 37 boys and 1 in 151 girls) have ASD. The prevalence appears to be increasing annually and there is no known single cause although genetics and environmental factors may play a role.
Children with autism regularly undergo therapy to help and strengthen communication, cognitive and motor skills. Sports are generally beneficial to children and it is good parental practice to expose children from a young age to a wide selection of sports. Jodi Carlton, Licensed Professional Counselor at Helping Hearts Counseling makes the point that team sports are often difficult for children with autism because of the required social interaction and communication (sometimes through body language) that team sports require. Sometimes autistic kids aren’t able to process spoken language as quickly, or know how to interpret body language cues which can lead to confusion and frustration for the child, as well as their teammates. Additionally, motor coordination is sometimes slower to develop in children with autism, so sports that require complex coordination combined with a fast pace can be very difficult.
With an ASD child - generally more sensitive to noise, crowds and enhanced energy levels - care should be taken to expose the child to sports more fitting to their personalities and accommodating of their challenges, however, parents should take care not to be too limiting and show some courage to step outside of strict comfort zones.
The University of Utah Health Care's Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic has done some work around autism and sports and listed the following five as the best sports for kids with autism: biking, track and field, swimming, horse-riding and gymnastics. While not referenced in the above study, an individual sport with repeatable motions like tennis and golf may fit well with an ASD child's tendencies and temperament. Certainly the exercises that help a junior golfer may be useful for ASD kids to help develop core strength and boost muscle tone and co-ordination. See this link for further information on helpful exercises: Junior Golf Fitness
Golf may, in fact, be a wonderful sport for an ASD child who finds comfort in routine and the outdoors, with as much or as little communicative interaction and competition as the child is comfortable with.
Anthony is a 12 year old (at the time of writing this article) junior golfer with Autism, Dyspraxia, Hypermobility and other related issues. He has a large twitter following (@anthonygolf2006) which is administered by his dad. He agreed to answer some interview questions on his experience, goals and inspirations in junior golf as a player with hidden disabilities.
How did you get into golf?
I took up golf when I was seven to try and help me make new friends because I have the shy side of Autism and find it hard to communicate. The first day my dad took me to the driving range. He had tried every sport up until that point to help my confidence, fitness and interaction with other children and adults. I remember the first day at the range, my dad put five balls down in front of me and I hit all of them straight off the mat (with obviously no technique at that point). The rest is history. I get on well with most people, especially ones that are not loud. Most people I have met in the last five years through golf are quiet like me, this really helps me interact and feel more comfortable.
Where has your journey in golf taken you so far?
From age seven to ten I had junior group coaching with a coach who actually had Hypermobility herself so she tailored some of the exercises and learning around my condition. She was patient and understanding and started me off playing par-3 courses to gain experience. When I was ten years old I started playing 18 hole courses and at age eleven I joined the Coventry Golf Club to start playing regularly on the course. At age eleven I started golf lessons at the Belfry PGA National Golf Academy with Phil Akers. I was awarded a scholarship at the Belfry and was chosen to play for the Belfry Junior Team in the Sutton and District Golf League. I was awarded player of the term at the Belfry and recently was selected to represent the Belfry in Scotland in a four day event playing at St Andrews, Glen Eagles and Craig Golf Courses.
How do you feel that autism holds you back and how do you keep positive when life gets you down a bit?
Outside of golf my communication skills are not the best and that really hinders my confidence in school, especially in English and PE. In the past I have had people shout at me saying I am rubbish, useless or an idiot which I find really negative. This can affect me a lot. I have to say to myself: This is me, I cannot change this, and I will have to ignore it and carry on.
Currently one of my favorite inspirational quotes is from the film "Rocky": ''The world isn't just sunshine and rainbows it is a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there if you let it. Nobody is going to hit as hard as life, but it isn't how hard you hit its about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward''. I always think of this when I am in tough situations or cannot do something which is pretty much a lot of the time.
What are the main challenges you face on the golf course?
On the golf course my main challenges, in the last couple of years, are to remember my score at the end of each hole and round (very difficult as I have issues with short term memory), choose the right club for the distances required (written down on a pad on my push cart) and implement swing change improvements (from lessons).
Why do you think golf is a good sport for autistic people and what do you get out of playing golf?
Golf is such a good individual sport for autistic people because it allows you to get into a zone and also helps relieve frustration from your struggles. I love the learning process for golf. You highlight something you need to improve, you then grind away at fixing it. Once this is done you move onto the next thing that will make you better. In truth it makes me feel like I can do something and gives me inspiration to succeed and try harder. I would say, of all the negative things my conditions causes me, it also has some positives as I am definitely determined, focused and able to cope with pressure.
What is your ideal playing partner like?
My ideal playing partner is patient with a slightly slower pace of play. If a playing partner can strike up a conversation early and keep it going through the round that is nice. I also appreciate some help with scoring and confirming scores at the end of each hole is helpful. If someone can say an encouraging or kind word when I hit a good or bad shot that helps my confidence too.
Who is your hero and why?
My hero is Phil Akers the Director of Junior Coaching at the Belfry (England) he also has Dyspraxia himself and understands part of what I go through each day and with my golf learning process. He has gone from being as quiet as a mouse to teaching hundreds of kids of all ages and is now one of the most qualified junior golf coaches in the United Kingdom. With Phil's support I am gradually coming out of my shell a bit, along with the support of both my parents who have helped me also as they understand me 100%.
My Dad is also a very big part of my journey. He has taken me to all my coaching over the last five years and has also caddied for me since I have been playing on courses. The most common thing he says to me is "Awesome shot little man" which I love, but not when my older friends are around! A few years back my Dad started a Twitter account for me (I am too young). The purpose being to track my life journey (tackling my disabilities) and also my golf journey for the next few years. I now have nearly 1000 followers and regularly chat with other young golfers around the world, and fellow Autistic/Dyspraxia children/adults. I have even had some positive feedback from famous golfers like Ernie Els, Gary Player, Danny Willett and Nick Faldo. I enjoy people seeing my page and being inspired by relating to my struggles with life and indeed golf sometimes too.
What are your future goals and aspirations in golf and life?
My aspirations for the future in golf are to first get in the Warwickshire County squad, then play for England, followed by turning Pro and going on tour. My ultimate goal is to win the Masters. This would make me the first winner of the Masters with disabilities.
On my journey I am trying to inspire other golfers with disabilities, along with non-golfers who are just looking for light at the end of the tunnel with their issues. I want to assure them that they are not the only ones struggling and it can be really tough sometimes but you have to say to yourself: I have a dream and to get there I must achieve these short term goals. Alternatively you could just sit down and say: I can't do this. If you do that you will never be able to get anywhere. You have to work towards a dream and prove to the world that you can achieve, even with all these extra challenges.
Anthony's coach, Phil Akers, Director of Junior Coaching at the Belfry PGA National Golf Academy also agreed to give us some insights into the joys and challenges of coaching children with hidden disabilities:
What makes a child on the autism spectrum a delight to coach?
Coaching Anthony is different to coaching other children in that it takes him a lot longer to absorb the information which you provide, however, it’s a delight to coach him because you can see the grit and determination that is required to find the answers, and for a coach these are two very satisfying traits to see in a student.
What lessons has coaching an autistic child taught you?
You have to be extra clear and sometimes inventive to make sure that they follow along with you. Often you’ll need to come up with new ways of explaining things to reinforce their understanding. It’s a whole different ball game to coaching children without autism. With an autistic child, your coaching style will need to differ and be flexible depending on which end of the spectrum the autistic child is.
What advice do you have for coaches who may worry that they do not have the necessary qualifications to coach a child on the spectrum?
Research it. If you know a student is autistic then try and understand the issues they face. Understanding their issues allows you to tailor your coaching approach to the level of communication and support that they may need. Sometimes it can be frustrating to have to repeat a subject numerous times, but an autistic pupil's approach to understanding subjects differs from others and so it helps to communicate with more patience and try to accept that they may require a higher level of support than other students.
Are there specific things that you focus on in a lesson with an autistic junior golfer that you may spend less or more time on with a other juniors?
I try to hammer home a growth mindset into autistic children, letting them know that they can achieve anything if they put their mind to it, persevere and work hard. Golf is frustrating enough and when you have autism it can make it more challenging, so I think it’s incredibly important to create the right mindset before going too deep into the technical or physical side of the game.
What advice do you have for parents of children on the autism spectrum who may be thinking of introducing their kids to golf?
Do it! Find a proactive coach who’s willing to go the extra mile to understand the challenges your child faces and they can be a great support. Golf's a fantastic game, it can provide your child with friends, exercise, can be individual or team based, and most importantly it will teach your child there is no wrong or right way to play the game - just different ways, which I think is an important life lesson for anyone who has autism.
We have such great admiration for Anthony, his parents and Coach Akers and are grateful for their willingness to contribute to and inspire through this article. We look forward to seeing Anthony go from strength to strength and playing a round of golf with him in the future! Autism is clearly not an impediment to playing junior golf for Anthony. In fact it may be the perfect sport.
Anthony's experience shows that ASD should not be viewed as an impediment to participating in sports in general. Parents need to be louder advocates for their ASD children and expose them to opportunities in sports even if it is initially uncomfortable. You never know what inspirations and talents may be hiding under awkward social interplays, repetitive behaviors and the like.
Parents and coaches need to nurture talents, explore interests and help create a world where everyone is educated and accepting of children - atypical or not.