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Wayne Post
  • Coaching Kamp: Kids with autism deserve spot on the field

  • The final days of April are upon us and youth sports teams — from lacrosse and field hockey to baseball and soccer — have used this month to train for the season. Yet the month of April has another meaning for many young athletes and parents. April is Autism Awareness Month.

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  • The final days of April are upon us and youth sports teams — from lacrosse and field hockey to baseball and soccer — have used this month to train for the season. Yet the month of April has another meaning for many young athletes and parents. April is Autism Awareness Month.
     
    “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors,” according to the national organization, Autism Speaks.
    Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify approximately one in 88 American children as “on the autism spectrum” — a 10-fold increase over 40 years. Studies show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls with an estimated one in 54 boys and one in 252 girls diagnosed with autism annually in the United States. This means that ASD affects over two million individuals in our country and, of course has an impact on youth sports.
    Children with autism deserve every opportunity to enjoy the fun and excitement of youth sports. Issues arise when a youth coach isn’t educated on ASD and misunderstands a youngster’s behavior. There are not many coaches who understand the learning disabilities that many of their players may have. It is imperative that today’s youth sports coach becomes more aware and takes the extra steps to learn more about ASD and other learning disabilities.
    So how does a youth sports coach learn about autism and coaching modifications they have to make? It starts with communication — talking with the player’s parents and guardians, getting to know the player on a one-on-one basis. Coaches should do their homework and learn more about ASD, especially the understanding that no two children with autism are the same. Young players with autism are like all the other players on the team. The difference is how they process information and how certain factors can influence how they learn and process coaching interaction. Good coaches know that you “manage the team, but coach the player.” Working individually with youth athletes is beneficial to all players.
    Labeling any young athlete with anything other than being a young athlete is inappropriate for coaches. The ‘label’ of autism or having a learning disorder can be mean and hurtful to the young player and their family. Think of Olympic swimmer and multi-gold medalist Michael Phelps who has Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder. Think he would like you to tell him how to swim?! For coaches who are not sure, again, communicate with parents, research available autism resources or even talk with a veteran coach. It’s your job to teach the fundamentals and every now and then you have to learn them, too.
    Page 2 of 2 - Coaching players with autism and other learning disabilities is a good growth experience for coaches. Coaches learn from these experiences, and take them out of their comfort zone which makes for better coaches and better human beings. Youth sports experts agree, in every sport and at all levels, coaches should become more aware of ASD and understand their player’s needs. Providing a positive youth sports experience for all helps build character, instill sportsmanship and fair play and just might make the difference in a child’s life.
    Coaches and others who work with youth sports can learn more at www.autism-society.org. It’s one of many web resources available.
    Greg Kamp is a 23-year veteran of youth sports as a coach and administrator and is currently the President of Penfield Little League and sits on the board at the District level. He is the host of Youth Sports Now, a weekly radio show on WYSL-AM/FM and also runs Strategy First, his own public relations and marketing business.
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