Tips to create inclusive sports and recreation activities
Suggestions for autistic adults, parents, organizers and communitiesBy Brigid Rankowski and Lydia Wayman | November 15, 2022
A great way for autistic people to form connections and build relationships with others is through shared interests. One option is through high-quality adaptive programs – those designed for people with disabilities in a supportive environment, from the Special Olympics to local therapeutic horseback riding lessons to school LEGO clubs. Since most participants have disabilities, they are also safe spaces for autistic people to freely be themselves and to feel accepted in a way they may not experience anywhere else.
But not all adaptive programs are ideal for every person or situation. Some people are looking for opportunities to meet people who share a very specific or uncommon interest. Others are looking to broaden their social circles. Those who excel at a specific sport or other competitive event may be looking for bigger challenges or more intensive training. Some areas might not have enough people interested in certain activities to be able to offer separate adaptive programs.
In these situations, inclusive sports and recreation activities may be a better option. Here individuals with and without disabilities participate together. Some activities and programs are already designed with the support needs of people with disabilities in mind. (Think: online video gaming.) But what happens when they are not?
Here we offer some suggestions based on your role to make a non-adaptive activity inclusive. Keep in mind that every situation is different, and it may take some trial and error to find an approach that works for everyone involved. But the effort is worth it. There is so much to be gained from embracing inclusive sports and recreation.
For autistic self-advocates
- Reach out to the organizer by phone or email before the event or activity to ask questions, give them a heads up about your needs, and talk about accommodations. The more specific you are about what you need, the better others can help you.
- It is ok if you don’t want to disclose your full diagnosis. But it is valuable to tell the organizer about your sensory needs, communication needs, or other parts of yourself that would help them know more about you.
- Intense social or sensory experiences can be taxing. In addition to thinking about your accommodation needs during the activity, consider how you will spend your time before and after the activity. For example, a checklist or visual routine might keep stress levels low while you get ready. You might want to avoid running errands or making phone calls in the hours after the activity.
- Ask a family member or friend to come with you, even if it’s just for the first session.
- Finding activities to participate in can be a challenge, depending on where you are in life, the area you live in or other factors such as finances. If you are still school-aged, you could check out after school programs. No matter your age, you should check with your local municipality or community center. These typically offer a variety of classes for people of all ages and abilities.
- Searching online within your county or state can open doors. One of the wonderful things about technology is there are virtual groups based on shared interest open to people across the world. These can be ideal if you feel burned out in general or if your interest is very specific.
- Ask the organizer if you and your child can observe a session. This will help your child decide whether the activity is a good fit and help you identify potential challenges.
- Consider the experience from multiple perspectives — sensory, social, communication, routine.
- Use familiar strategies that your child uses at home or in school, like a visual schedule, communication cards, or a wiggle seat.
- Think about the supports needed before and after the activity. For example, your child may benefit from a social story before the activity, or they might need plenty of time to get ready to keep stress levels low. Afterwards, they may need quiet time to recover from a sensory-intensive activity or an opportunity to move after a sit-down activity.
- Consult with your child’s IEP team about possible accommodations for after-school clubs, sports, or other activities your child wants to try.
- Involve autistic people in the planning process to discover how your program can be more accessible.
- Periodically look at what is working with the programs and what can be improved on to increase participation, retention, and overall satisfaction.
- Try to avoid last-second changes to activities that were planned in advance, as changes to routines can be distressing.
- Be open to changing the final product and understand the goal of an activity may be for enjoyment instead of perfection.
- Making activities inclusive doesn’t have to be expensive. Reducing the fluorescent lighting, limiting loud noises, allowing participants to get up or move, and having agendas available to participants are all free or low-cost ways to be more inclusive.
- Reach out to community members to see what needs or wants exist for programming in your area.
- Keep in mind that people with disabilities are part of every age group, faith, socioeconomic status, and cultural group. They have the same wide range of interests as everyone else. Inclusiveness is important to consider whether the group is a ballet class, craft beer tasting event, or historical reenactment.
- Connect with local or state disability organizations to discover grants or funding available to run activities.
- Even if there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest, offering smaller-sized classes helps participants get more support in activities and builds a stronger, accepting community.
- Continue to help instructors get more learning or training in understanding and teaching people with disabilities.