Sports and Inclusion: Raising Athletes of all Abilities

I dare you to watch this trailer for the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games and not feel motivated, encouraged or proud. And maybe a little taken over by emotion recognizing all of the strength, determination and heart of those athletes. (I’m not crying, you’re crying…)It’s easy for sports to fall to the bottom of our priority list when it comes to supporting our children with developmental disabilities.  If things are in crisis, it’s not the right time to add something new. If things are going well, it’s nice to take a minute to be a family. 

The playing field can be a place where challenges stand out.

No parent enjoys seeing their child stressed, embarrassed or frustrated. For those of us who have children that respond to stress or challenges with negative behavior, we don’t enjoy feeling that we are not ‘succeeding’ as a parent because our child isn’t falling in line.  Between carving out the time and resources to join a team, getting the child (or children) physically to the class or training, and then actually getting through the practice or game, it is emotionally exhausting…for everyone! 

So, why sports?

I’m going to make the assumption that we all have included happiness and enjoyment of life when we think about the goals we’ve set for our children.  In his article Exercise and the ADHD Brain: The Neuroscience of Movement, John Ratey, MD, reminds us, “Research shows that physical activity sparks real, positive changes in the brain that increase attention and improve mood.”Have you experienced the mood re-set of leaving your desk or kitchen table to take a brisk walk outside? Have you ever left an exercise class or finished a run and felt like you could take on the world? Do you remember the unadulterated joy of running toward a ball as a child, sliding across ice, climbing to the top of a structure or gliding through the water?  To oversimplify a complex topic, it feels good to move.  Sports give children an outlet to move and a dedicated time and space to do so. 

But joining a team is more than exercise; it is an opportunity to push and be pushed physically, emotionally and cognitively.

Think about the goals that you and your therapists (and child!) have created. You have goals for physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and cognition.  Maybe you have goals for social skill development, sensory processing, visual-spatial development or for self regulation. Now think about the context in which those goals can be achieved. As adults, we know that we are most engaged with something when it is interesting or meaningful to us. The same goes for our children.  My child will sit for hours to tediously fill up Pez containers because he loves to collect them. This could be perceived as rigid and not functional behavior; I don’t see it that way.  I see him happily engaging in life while working on his goals: fine motor, sustained attention, self regulation, patterning, building numeracy skills and forming social relationships as he proudly shares with others. Similarly, sports can be an opportunity to naturally incorporate a number of your child’s ‘goals’ into playFather and Son smiling playing sports 

When we feel confident in ourselves, we can take on the world.

Taking on the world or gathering confidence to try again certainly isn’t easy. Sometimes you’ll wonder why you’re putting the time in at all. Remember these tips from How Playing Sports Can Help Special Needs Kids On and Off the Field and let them lead you:

  1. Follow your child’s lead. Include your child in the decision making process as much as you can.
  2. Find the right fit. You know your child best. Maybe he thrives in structure (martial arts?) or LOVES the water.
  3. Be creative. There are many roles to be filled on a sports team. What works for your child? Often it’s a process of discovery…as with so many things in life!
  4. Look for a program with the right coaching philosophy. Finding a coach that supports your child socially, emotionally and behaviorally is where the magic happens.
  5. Celebrate the successes. In line with our #CelebrateTheWins post from last week, we encourage one another look at all of those tiny little steps leading up to accomplishing the goal of getting out on the ice or court. Recognize and celebrate those victories with your child so he has the confidence to keep climbing.


Ok, now what’s out there?

Lots! They aren’t always easy to find, but they’re there! Identify national organizations such as the Special Olympics  or Cerebral Palsy Sport to learn more about your options. Ask your community about inclusion sports programming and see what adaptive programming is available. Try running clubs like the ones described here. Or maybe you’ll create a program like these:  Smart Light Sports, to help kids get on the ice or better understand the game, or Ausome Ottawa, creating opportunities for kids with autism to participate in sport. PLAY confidently! Visit the MA Resource DirectoryVisit the LA Resource Directory