An Athlete first … not The Rain Man

Jan 31, 2011
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My sons have autism and yes I have seen film “The Rain Man.” If someone gave me $10 for every time I have heard that, I would be a wealthy man. I remind myself that I have to accept that not everyone carries an informed understanding of autism and its challenges. Sometimes I get mischievous and tell them that my eldest son – Michael – is an excellent card counter; cue the Rain Man in Vegas dialogue. The conversation usually concludes with someone saying“it’s amazing the math skills those kids have.” There seems to be genuine surprise when I tell people that my son has poor math skills (learning disabilities can often accompany autism), but he is an excellent distance runner.  Michael has won many races and is a joyful participant with Islanders Running Club – a club we started for kids that needed a bit of support.

Stereotypes about limited capabilities place additional barriers in-front of people that are already facing challenges associated with their diagnosis. They can place certain expectations of behaviour, learning, etc that may be far removed from the student’s skills or interests. So how can parents of students with special needs help to promote their child’s inclusion in sports and then counter the stereotypical views of their child?

Firstly, parents should work with schools / community sports programs to find ways to get their kids involved; don’t accept the assumptions that the sport will be too difficult. Appropriate accommodations and modifications can make any sports  program accessible. Unfortunately, in 2009, almost 60% of students with disabilities were given exemptions from their PE classes – something that is hardly conducive to the promotion of health, wellness, inclusion, acceptance, etc.

Secondly, an athlete-first approach needs to be promoted.

Educating my son’s teachers and coaches about this approach is sometimes necessary as I want them to know that my boys are actually capable of a high level of athletic performance but will require support in social circumstances. I do tell them that my sons have autism, but they are not autistic. What’s the difference, I have been asked? Can you imagine describing a child diagnosed with Leukemia as “a carcinogenic child.” The disease or disorder in no way describes their personalities, interests, emotional needs, desires, etc. This is particularly important to recognise with autism as it is something that can manifest itself with a vast range of behaviours, challenges, and needs. I want teachers and coaches to view my sons, and any other student participating in sports as an athlete first.

Author: Gary Barber