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Autism Spectrum Youth: Training Tips and Challenges

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The JV Boys 400 runners took their marks. Parents trained their cameras on their sons. The gun sounded and they were off. Everyone except my son. He took one step and his shoe came completely off. Maybe that would be a minor issue for most kids. But my son has autism. What he did next thrilled the crowd.

We expected a meltdown. That was his usual response to stressful situations. Instead, he hesitated just a second, then stooped, grabbed his shoe, put it back on, and ran. He ran so hard that he finished in second place. He ran so well that the coach entered him in a redemption race later in the day.

Let Them Try and Let Them Fail

Some autistic children can be great athletes. In the case of running, their synaptic firings that enable them to hyper-focus on single things can make them nearly unbeatable. That is, until the routine is interrupted. My son is about all things running – the right shoes, the right warm-up, the right weather, the right technique. Any deviation from the formula he has in his mind can result in either a meltdown, a shutdown, or sometimes, miraculously, a fantastic performance.

400m shoes
Finishing the 400m with both shoes

It wasn’t always like that. Like his two older brothers, we started him in youth soccer. At this time we didn’t know much about his physical abilities, fine motor skills, and spatial reasoning. But we wanted to let him try. Based on the repeated outcome of meltdowns, we removed him from soccer and all other team activities until high school. That’s when he told us he was ready to try again. Together, we learned through trial and error.

Enter Their Perception of Their Autism World

When I started training my son, he wanted to run obstacle course races like I do. I was very hesitant to do that. I encouraged him to run track or cross country instead. The less chance of injury and getting muddy (guaranteed in OCR) meant a higher chance of his acceptance into running. But he insisted. However, I was not surprised when he shut down completely after scraping his knee on an obstacle.

OCR runner
My runner first discovers OCR

One thing I have learned about my autistic child is that he cannot be convinced otherwise that something does not hurt. For him, the scraped knee was a near-death experience. The rest of us maybe wipe it off with a sleeve and keep on running. He was unable to breath properly. At least that is what he claimed. The problem I have as a parent is the difficulty in telling what is a real symptom and what is just his hypersensitivity. We took him to the doctor as we often do for things like this. Our son may not listen to us, but he will listen to a doctor on one condition. First, he has to explain in minute detail everything that happened. Funny enough, his doctor actually likes this. He says my son is an excellent patient because he tells all whereas most other patients withhold necessary information. The doctor patiently listened to the entire episode and then assured my son that all was well, knee, lungs, and all.

Determine Where They are on the Autism Spectrum and  Then Try Again

Our son was diagnosed with Aspberger’s Syndrome (a form of autism) at a very young age. So he received some help from school, doctors, and child study teams. We knew that his fine motor skills were so-so (his writing is very sloppy) but overall his other physical abilities were fine. His biggest area of difficulty was in social skills. That made teamwork nearly impossible for him. This has remained true even though he has matured significantly over the years. He does things now we never thought possible. We always make sure that his IEP includes the minimum amount of aide supervision so that he feels free to do and explore. Gym class is not one of those areas due to the team-oriented structure.

XC team member
2016 Cross Country team member

Divulge or Withhold

Although our son is classified with autism, we choose in each and every situation whether to divulge this fact. For cross country and track he chose only to tell his coach but not his teammates. The other kids know he is different but thankfully they accept him. They enjoy rotating pasta parties at one anothers’ homes on Friday nights before meets. We wondered if anyone would show up to our house. They did. We were all delighted.

Communicate with the Coaches

At the same time, the coaches remained quite relaxed about our son. They coached him more as an athlete and less as someone on the autism spectrum. In other words, they treated him just like every other kid on the team. For his first season he had an aide standing by just in case. This season, our son is on his own and doing fine.

What About Other Parts of the Autism Spectrum

I don’t claim to have the keys to all this. I’m just a parent like the rest of you, struggling to figure it out as I go along, seeking help anywhere I can get it. The problem is, there is not much help out there because everyone on the autism spectrum is so different. My son is high-functioning. What about kids who are locked in (non-verbal), have poor motor skills, or require constant supervision?

Bottom Line and Caveat

My opinion is to follow the general guidelines above that my wife and I followed. Kids are kids and they want and need to move as they grow. What seem like limitations to us may only be a matter of perception to them. We as parents just need to find appropriate outlets for our kids to safely exercise. Every day more opportunities arise for kids on the autism spectrum, wherever they are. One recent study showed that even non-verbals do hear, comprehend, and try to communicate. Through brainwave studies we now know that some have tremendous cognitive skills. They think and feel. They do understand what we say. And they desperately want to be “normal.” Our job is to let them fulfill that most basic need of childhood – having fun.

autism tree
Autism can be larger than life or a child like a mighty sequoia