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The hidden condition – a coach’s guide to autism | Inclusive Coaching | ConnectedCoaches

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The hidden condition – a coach’s guide to autism

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Autism 1

Advice for coaches on the challenges people with autism face when taking part in sport or physical activity, with examples of how coaching styles and methods can be easily adapted to accommodate individual needs.

  • Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.
  • Because autism is a hidden condition, this increases the probability of misunderstanding, or even conflict, occurring.
  • Autism affects different people in lots of different ways and to varying degrees.
  • Coaches need to be aware of how to support someone with autism as, just because someone is autistic, does not mean they will inevitably choose to join a disability sport club.
  • For example, autistic people can take things very literally, can find it difficult to express their needs, and may struggle to comprehend some phrases and terminology. So use clear and precise language – avoiding jargon and colloquial terms.

Picture the scene if you will. An incensed coach glares at one of her players, who is steadfastly refusing to put on a yellow bib. As the tone of the coach becomes increasingly insistent, so the player becomes increasingly distressed. Everyone stops what they are doing and falls silent.

It seems neither person is going to back down, and a palpable impasse is reached. Nervous glances are exchanged as parents slowly begin to filter their way pitch-side.

How on earth did this most innocuous of situations degenerate so rapidly into a tirade, tantrum and now tears?

Just a few minutes earlier, the coach had divided the group into two equal teams ready for a short-sided game to round off what had been an enjoyable, incident-free session.

But unbeknown to the coach, the ‘disruptive’ player in question is on the autism spectrum, and is also hypersensitive to touch.

For them, wearing a bib feels like having a cheese grater rubbing against their skin.

But how on earth was the coach supposed to have known that?

A call to action

This hypothetical scenario illustrates one type of sensory challenge that some people on the autism spectrum face.

It also emphasises the lack of understanding of autism in our society.

The National Autistic Society defines the condition as a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.

The signs and characteristics of autism are incredibly diverse.

And because autism is a hidden condition, this increases the probability of misunderstanding, or even conflict, occurring.

ConnectedCoaches member Amy Webster is the Coordinator of Active for Autism, the National Autistic Society’s training and consultancy programme for PE teachers, sports coaches and anyone involved in sports.

She believes that all coaches and physical activity leaders should have a basic understanding of autism so they can learn to spot the signs and make adjustments to help participants take part.

Amy (pictured below) – who develops and delivers training to sports coaches, and delivers sport and physical activity sessions to people on the autism spectrum – says: ‘Coaches do not necessarily recognise that there might be autistic people in their sessions. As a result, they may be making assumptions regarding challenging behaviour.’

Amy Webster

The silent minority

Around 700,000 people in the United Kingdom (1 in 100 of the population) are estimated to be autistic.

While there has been an increase in diagnoses of autism, there are still lots of people who go about their daily lives unaware that they have the condition.

Coaches should not rely on parents to automatically inform them that their son or daughter is on the autistic spectrum.

As Amy explains: ‘Some parents may choose not to give out that information because there is still a stigma about autism and they don’t want their child to be treated differently to others.’

Coaches need to be aware of the hidden nature of the condition, and the fact that autism affects different people in lots of different ways and to varying degrees.

Mainstream coaches also need to be aware of how to support someone with autism in their session as, just because someone is autistic, it does not mean they will inevitably choose to join a disability sport club.

‘It is important to have an individual approach with all participants,’ says Amy.

‘You say that to any coach and they reply that we should be doing that anyway, which is nice to hear.’

It means that most coaches have already taken the crucial first step towards increasing their awareness, without even realising it. The ideas are in place, now all coaches need are the appropriate nuggets of knowledge.

So without further ado

‘Autism is such a broad condition,’ says Amy. ‘It is important to make coaches aware that it is not a learning disability or a mental health condition – but a developmental condition.’

So, bearing in mind the diverse range of experiences and needs, and the fact that particular idiosyncrasies will only become apparent by developing a close relationship with individuals, what should coaches be on the lookout for?

Common characteristics of autism can be broken down into three main areas:

  • social factors: heightened fear and anxiety in social situations
  • verbal and non-verbal language: difficulty understanding non-literal figures of speech and interpreting body language
  • sensory challenges: autistic people may have acute, or dulled, sensitivity to stimuli, like what they see, hear or touch.

Amy says that some autistic people can take things very literally, can find it difficult to express their needs, and may struggle to comprehend some phrases and terminology.

‘They might have difficulties with social communication or interaction, and participants may struggle to interpret the language we commonly use as coaches,’ she says.

‘For example, football phrases like “play in the pocket” or “pass down the line” can cause a lot of confusion.’

Joining a club then can be a daunting prospect, which is why lots of autistic people miss out on the benefits of physical exercise.

Using clear and precise language – avoiding jargon, metaphors and colloquial terms – will help autistic participants interact in sessions and improve their chances of forming friendships.

It pays to be patient

Amy has some more simple advice for coaches who have been advised to be alert to the signs of autism.

‘There is this big fear factor when I talk to other coaches about autism,’ she says.

‘They think they are going to have to start from scratch. But I never tell anyone how to coach their sport. It’s just about being prepared to make more adaptations, break things down into smaller chunks, keep things simple and manage your expectations.

‘Certain things may take a little bit longer, but it does not mean the person is not listening or taking in what you are saying.

‘Coaches do seem to take things personally and think they are not doing their job right, but the biggest message I try to get across is that they are doing everything right, it’s just that it can be a longer process with autistic people or with disability sport in general.’

Communication, as ever, is key. Understanding their frustrations, and learning to adapt your teaching to make it easier for them to understand you, is a sure-fire way of meeting the particular needs of the individual.

And remember:

  • don’t force people to engage – provide safe space for ‘time out’
  • don’t put pressure on them, push them or overstretch them – but work with them to develop at their own pace
  • be patient and try different ways to engage and motivate (think outside the box).

Amy Webster 2

In her spare time, Amy works as a volunteer coach with a pan-disability football team: two-time champions of the West Riding FA Ability Counts League, Danby Rovers Disability FC.

She says the skills and qualities she has developed from working with autistic players are transferable to any coaching setting.

‘I often hear coaches say that these strategies and extra little adaptations they pick up by coming on an autism course can work wonders with all participants.

‘It might be using more visual aids or markers, or changes in the way they communicate. I know it helps me with my visually impaired and deaf players [at Danby].’

Are creative ideas swimming in your head?

Another principal piece of advice Amy offers mainstream coaches is the need to manage your expectations.

The primary goal of a session should be to ensure an autistic participant remains engaged.

‘Especially when I work with PE teachers, they are too focused on the specific plan they have to follow for each term, and showing the progression pupils are making. That’s not always going to be possible for people with autism,’ says Amy.

‘If they are engaging in the session, then it doesn’t matter that they have not yet progressed to overarm throwing and are still on passing the ball from one hand to the other. Keeping them engaged is a massive win for you. It’s all about managing expectations.’

Amy recounts an uplifting example that incorporates all the areas we have covered – managing expectations, adapting sessions and methods, and the importance of developing a relationship with individuals.

The coach in question was struggling to get her young participant to swim widths of the pool.

Recognising the fact that it is common for autistic people to have special interests, and that repetitive speech is another characteristic associated with autism, she soon discovered – by taking the time to get to know the child – that he had a passion for Thomas the Tank Engine.

Not a session went by that he didn’t talk to her about Thomas’s latest escapades.

Amy continues with the story: ‘All he wanted to do was talk about Thomas the Tank Engine.

‘So she ended up laminating a picture of Thomas and sticking one either side of the pool. This child was then straight into the pool, swam to Thomas and then back to the other picture of Thomas. And then, as a nice little incentive, he got five minutes in the pool with his Thomas toy.

‘That goes to show that, if you do take the time to get to know the interests of each individual, it can be a massive value to you as a coach as well.

‘It is also a great example of how, if you build a meaningful relationship with the people in your group or team, they will recognise and appreciate that you have taken an interest.’

The positive power of sport

Physical activity at any level, age or ability increases self-esteem, develops social skills, and improves physical and mental health and well-being.

And there are other tremendous benefits to playing sport if you are autistic.

‘Aside from the obvious health benefits, what I have seen from some of the guys I’ve worked with is a boost in their confidence,’ says Amy. ‘When they find they are good at these things, it makes them appreciate the fact they can participate just like everyone else, but they may learn differently or at a different pace.

‘I had one participant who would never leave his house on his own. He was encouraged to come along to the football sessions, and this has given him the confidence to try new things, and he’s now part of a tennis club as well.’

Sport is as beneficial to a person on the autism spectrum as a Swiss army knife is to an outdoor camper – a multi-pronged tool that coaches can use to shape and improve a person’s quality of life, and which is useful in a variety of settings.

For example, Amy explains the enormous impact football has had on improving social development and inclusion within her own group of players.

‘We’ve done some social trips to help them with using public transport, a few sessions on how to write a good CV, as well as covering things like sexual health and drugs and alcohol. We’ve even had a Premier League referee in – Bobby Madley – to do a session on respecting the referee.

‘The idea of these different topics is to get them away from the football pitch and learn something important while also promoting social interaction and developing their social skills.’

Action plan

If you have read this far, hopefully you are now aware of the importance of being alert to the signs of autism, and recognise that good coaches will listen to and support the individuals they coach.

As the saying goes, a little knowledge can go a long way.

Please leave a comment below if you found this blog helpful.

Next steps

You can learn more about autism in the ConnectedCoaches blog Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC):

Or find out more from the National Autistic Society website.

The National Autistic Society has a range of courses for sport and physical activity leaders, all of which involved input from autistic people during development of the content:

  • two-day course
  • one-day course
  • half-day course
  • online module (discounts available for bulk purchases).

Further information on all formats can be found here: http://www.autism.org.uk/active 

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including iTunes. Listen here.

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Comments (17)

   
JKKennington

Perfectly and clearly put - thank you for posting Blake.
I work with some great people both on the water and in Nature; some people are noticeably on the spectrum but others less so and sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a 'carer' and a 'client' (both words I dislike to use).
I will be sharing your blog as it so important that such a helpful article is widely read. Thank you, JK

01/11/16
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Diddyditri

Having recently worked with a teenager and his carer this article is extremely useful. One of the suggestions is to create a a passport for the student/ athlete which bullets points a few points which really matter to them, for example "I don't like being touched" or " I like to be called..." This simple tool is effective and accepted by the individual and persons around them.
Di

10/11/16
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MandyH

I like the passport idea!

12/04/17
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Carole

I teach school pupils to swim. I teach approximately 1/3 of the class for 25 minute sessions if they are younger than 7 and teach approximately 1/2 the class for 35 or 40 minutes if they are aged 7-10 (Year 6 are too busy to have swimming lessons). Each year group comes for a term each - so they might swim term 1 and term 4 or 2 and 5 or 3 and 6. The biggest problem is that we don't have enough time to get to know the children until about week 4 or 5, the school is remote from the pool and the teaching assistants that bring the children across are not the usual classroom assistants or the INAs. We need to separate dangerous behaviour (which is non-negotiable) from not liking the feel of the equipment, or being distracted by lighting or fans whirring which we can accommodate only if the child can verbalise their dislike. This goes alongside nervous children, children with physical considerations (e.g. hearing or eyesight) and other things such as Poundland (toy) goggles that leak.
We live close to a special school and their swimming teacher uses makaton signs - but there isn't a CPD course for either British Sign language or Makaton for training ASA or STA teachers. Even Baby signing might help us with non-verbal pupils or pupils with English as a second language.
It is hard enough to keep 15 Year 3s motivated, moving, and not spitting water, splashing or going under the surface without having to consider the not liking to be touched or the constant humming we get from couple of the children. That is without the constant criticism from Tiger Mums who tell their children to keep reminding us that THEIR child has private lessons and doesn't need a float (or who write in to complain that their child can swim 2 or 3 lengths, not widths).
I am fine with eccentric, repetitive or preferences for certain equipment. However, I am only human, my voice can only take so much "raising" and there are times when only a "Paddington Bear hard stare" is appropriate.

07/02/17
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BarbWired

Thank you for this! I am coaching an autistic junior skater and an Asperger adult skater. Both need alternative communication strategies and lots of space to practice what they have been shown - they practice repetitively until they are happy that they are ready for the next step. This was a very useful read for me. Much appreciated.

07/02/17
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Blake

Thanks Barb, really glad you found it useful

08/02/17
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royjudo

A great explanation, I run inclusive judo sessions and find it valuable to have volunteers who befriend an athlete with autism.This gives them confidence and trust at their own pace.

29/03/17
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DazReevell

I coach an runner who has only just recently revealed his diagnosis to me. What was interesting to me was that it took him over a year to actually tell me formally that he has a diagnosis of autism. Having a daughter that has a disability as well as autism I've always prided myself on being inclusive, supportive, non-judgemental and open to all. I guess I may not be as open and easy to communicate with as I thought.

This has prompted me to reflect a little and see what I can change to ensure that all athletes I coach feel confident enough to be completely open with me.

11/04/17
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MandyH

I would hazard a guess that he didn't feel the need to tell you as, being 'autism aware' due to your daughter, you automatically adapted to his needs. As he got to know you better or perhaps things were feeling harder for him at that particular time (not necessarily related to your sessions) he decided to tell you :-)

13/04/17
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MandyH

Great article thanks! My daughter has autism and ADHD and I understand why parents may not want to disclose. I have always told coaches/music teachers etc as I think they really need to know but don't generally volunteer the info to anyone else unless there is a specific reason to do so. This is because I view autism as just a different way of being and thinking - not a disability. And because I want to protect her right to privacy too. A couple of things coaches need to be aware of is that people with autism often struggle more in the unstructured times (before/after sessions or during breaks) and if there are any changes e.g. different coach, different place. Also, if they are struggling it's better to speak less and give them some space to allow them time to process information rather than coming up with lots of solutions or allowing others to crowd them - even if they are trying to help. Often little things are big things to someone with autism and their thinking can be very rigid so respect what they are saying and don't force anything on them - even if it seems inconsequential to you.

12/04/17
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JKKennington

Amanda: you're points are perfect - I'm a Connecting with Nature and Watersports coach who happens to have a lot of team members who think differently - I'm not an ASD coach unless specifically asked as that would 'label' our guests.
I'm also very aware that the variation in processing time is not well known; even after years of working with someone I'll forget and rush into a multi subject multi question 'sentence' and expect a reply ! More information like yours above is both a reminder and a critical part of early coach training (or should be). Thank you for sharing, cheers, JK

12/04/17
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MandyH

Thanks JK, the processing information/overload thing is so easy to forget. Especially if it's a stressful situation. I forgot yesterday and tried to offer too many options/coping strategies in what was a very stressful situation. I didn't give her enough time to process it and someone else was trying to help too. Sometimes it's not till afterwards that you can see that you contributed to the difficulties. And all we can do is learn and try to do better next time :-)

I've put my hand up (as a stop signal) to teachers, the head teacher and others quite a few times to signal that they need to stop talking/helping and leave us be so she can calm down. I'm sure they think it's rude but it's less words and less overload for the person who is struggling. (It's actually really difficult to be quiet and not try to actively "help" when someone is very distressed.) I have to remind myself all the time.

12/04/17
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JKKennington

Love that last paragraph - so true of me - trying to be helpful to a colleague ...

12/04/17
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DazReevell

Some interesting comments on here that are really helping me reflect and reappraise the way I coach the runner with Autism. In the past I've had a tendency to fill in the gaps / quiet moments when having a catch-up with the athlete to impart knowledge and training advice. It may be that I am overloading him with too much information and that maybe the gaps / quiet moments are essential for the athlete to process / digest my previous statement(s). I think I'll try to be a little less talkative in the future. Maybe keep our catch-ups / debriefs to one or two simple points to digest.

13/04/17
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lyndaanderson

Great insight Darren, yes, those of us with ASD definitely need much more processing time! Often it may seem as if we are not listening, but in reality we are still trying to process what's going on. :-)

25/01/18
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StephHart

This is a very helpful discussion and I will certainly look into to doing a course.
I coach in primary schools and often have children who are on the autistic spectrum for PE lessons. My first experience of coaching a child with autisum was not a good one for either of us. Since then I have read up on the subject amd ask staff a lot more questions about the child to try and make their experience a much more postive one.

13/04/17
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MandyH

There's an online sports related autism course by National Autistic Society Steph. It's around £30. I've did this and would recommend it: http://www.autism.org.uk/professionals/training-consultancy/online/sport.aspx

14/04/17
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lyndaanderson

Hello All, I'm a bit late to join this discussion but I would like to offer my support to anyone here (for what it's worth!). I'm an adult with an ASD diagnosis, specifically Aspergers Syndrome. I also have a diagnosis of dyslexia, just to keep life interesting! I hold level 2 qualifications in triathlon and cycling coaching, and am currently working towards my the High Performance Coaching Programme/ Level 3 qualification, as well as a MSc in Mental Health Sciences. I run my own wee business as a chartered physiotherapist. There have been many challenges throughout life (I'm now 46), and I am only now starting to understand myself and others a little better! Please feel free to ask me any ASD/ dyslexia/ processing questions you may have. I look forward to hearing from you :-)

25/01/18
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IanMahoney

Never to late to join a conversation, many topics come up again time after time. Sone coaches have not been to a spotescoach workshop and learnt lesson one, (If you need to intervene you should say all you need within 30 seconds. Some coaches write novels with lots of irrelevant text!

31/01/18
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royjudo

Great comments but after 35 years of coaching all disabilities, I believe in looking at the ability of the athlete and adapt to suit. Not the disability.

31/01/18
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stevotech

Some interesting points within the main article - thank you, Blake Richardson and Amy Webster - and useful general contributor comments. Specifically, what would everyone suggest for a youngster that I have discovered CANNOT BE TAUGHT? But, he does LEARN! In my specific field of squash and racket-ball, the emphasis has always been to practise and practise drills or routines, with demonstrations of the correct techniques. However, the reaction is: "But that’s not the same as playing!" I am trying to unravel years of good coaching, but it is a very slow process finding different strategies to enable the youngster to learn by experience? Any suggestions?

06/05/18
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IanMahoney

Sports coach UK do some very good and useful movement skills Workshops from the Fundamentals and Ability, Balance and Coordination at speed (ABCs)

07/05/18
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stevotech

An update on my COACHING STTATEGY
A couple of years ago, I thought the youngster might be bipolar; I am still not sure, but, recently a specialist consultant confirmed that he has autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) with traits of pathological demand avoidance. I have had to ‘throw away the text book’ and re-write well-founded coaching strategies, as follows:

Number One – I listen more and observe more closely body language
Number Two – Improvisation and preparedness to change a coaching method is key
Number Three – More demonstrations, less verbal instructions (he prefers to watch movie clips)
Number Four – Use colours and/or shapes, instead of numbers
Number Five – Increase repetitive routines, but maintain fun elements
Number Six – Targets for personal achievement either are not applied or minimalized
Number Seven – Never argue or challenge a viewpoint or resistance; invite suggestions
Number Eight – Always praise, NEVER say, “Don’t do it that way”

Most of the coaching is now implemented through ‘conditioned’ games, e.g. focusing on a specific shot – we play a series for an hour – with occasional, brief stoppages for quick demonstrations and, of course, to hydrate.

By applying those new strategies, the result is a marked improvement in the youngster's squash playing ability!

21/07/18
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