Special needs athletes and soccer: When rules ignore needs

May 09, 2011
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Parents of special needs athletes, deciding that now is the time for their child to enjoy the benefits of school or community sports, will seek ways to find the right environment for their child. They will look for programs that encourage inclusion, promote their child’s sports development and have coaches that understand that their child may learn, think or behave in different ways.  My recent experience attempting to enroll my son in community soccer shows that unfortunately things do not always follow this script.

Our 10 year old son has an autism diagnosis and until now was not physically or socially ready for team sports. He is an excellent runner but has seldom kicked a soccer ball or been taught any skills. He has no knowledge of the most fundamental aspects of the game.  As a PE teacher I recognized that his learning needs, skill development and overall happiness would be better suited by playing with a younger age-group (just one year younger) and not with his age-peers that are competing for “gold and silver” team member status.

Unfortunately, my request for him to “play-down” did not comply with the rules of our provincial governing body of soccer.  When I examined the rules they revealed a surprisingly negative view of special needs athletes. “The only time a player may “play-down” an age group is if they are either a risk to themselves or to others on the field.” My son is not a risk to anyone; in fact he has a very gentle and quiet disposition.  It would seem that this organization has – through their rules – decided that the only recognition of special needs is if you are “harmful.” This is hardly an enlightened 21st century view of society’s diversity. I believe their focus is in the wrong place. We need to support special “needs” athletes, they are not called “Special risk athletes.”

This experience has made me wonder how many other families have given up enrolling their child in sports because of such restrictions. I have decided to withdraw my son’s application to play soccer within the formal club structure and have decided to set-up my own inclusive soccer club.  I have taken the same approach with all inclusive track club – Islanders Running Club – and we now have over 35 members; I am certain we will have lots of interest with soccer.

It is my intention to advocate for special needs athletes with my provincial soccer association and see if I can get them to re-write their rules. I will keep you informed on how this goes.

Author: Gary Barber