In my first two posts in the Everyday Decisions series, I talked about how to make traveling for kids with learning disabilities (LD) and other special needs more fun and less painful for the entire family. Today, we’ll focus on some great ways to get kids challenged by LD involved in sports in a way that works best for them and the entire team.
Have you faced challenges when it comes to getting your kids with LD or other special needs engaged with sports? The world of competitive athletics these days, even for school-aged kiddos, can be both rewarding and uber-competitive. But for kids with ADHD, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders and other developmental and learning differences, finding a way to fit in and get up to speed in a team setting can prove to be extra challenging.
How can participating on a sports team be both challenging and rewarding for children with learning disabilities and ADHD?
Field of DreamsAs a parent with high hopes that your child is a budding athlete, there’s nothing worse than sitting on the sidelines watching a coach loudly and publicly shout directions to your child that you quickly realize they aren’t able to follow. Or, feeling like your child is holding his team back from victory because his skills just aren’t up to par. But, even if your child is clearly not going to be the next Michael Jordan, there’s still a ton of value in allowing them the opportunity to play sports at the level that they are able to participate.
Another issue that might make your dream of getting your child into sports a tough reality is the time that many kids with LD have to spend on extra tutoring and therapy (see more about therapy below). Parents like me sometimes feel that there just isn’t enough time to add sports to our already full plate of after school appointments. But, I would encourage parents to view their child’s involvement in sports as an important addition to the academic and therapeutic help they are receiving. Being a part of a team can help build social skills and self-esteem in a way that few other activities can. Plus kids with differences bring a great element of diversity to a team setting, allowing the coaches and other children to experience the joy of helping a team member overcome challenges in order to find success on the field.
For my kids with differences, we’ve tried to expose them to a variety of sports and team situations. We’ve learned a lot along the way about our kids’ strengths and weaknesses and about what we can do to help address both physical and emotional challenges that come up on the field, court or gym.
Kids with dyspraxia, processing issues, sensory challenges, or developmental delays may have difficulty with physical coordination and muscle strength/tone making it difficult to hit or kick the ball or keep up with other kids their age.
When my daughter was about 6, she had trouble kicking the soccer ball and coordinating her movements to move away from the ball when it flew at her. There was more than one moment that we held our breath as a ball almost nailed her in the face—and then one time it did. She just wasn’t able to react to the motion in time due to her dyspraxia which affects coordination. Plus, following the coach’s instructions to move right or left, down field or up were obviously confusing for her due to her dyslexia. Her physical therapist later described it as, “Her brain isn’t telling her foot to get to the ball in time.”
Solution & Reward
Occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) may help with muscle strength and physical coordination. I have to admit that I was skeptical at first if this would really help. I was also leary of the cost. But, we found that our health insurance covers both our daughter’s OT and PT therapy sessions with a small co-pay (take a look at your policy or call your insurance company to see if yours will). Plus, our daughter really loves the sessions which include:
Skating to improve left and right coordination
Scooter board to improve upper body strength
Swing to improve motion sensitivity
Obstacle courses to improve attention and coordination
Yoga to improve core strength
Other activities to improve her ability to follow directions and understand directional movement and instruction
If your child is having physical trouble on the field, talk to your pediatrician to see if there is a way to help address problems that may be the result of dyspraxia, ADHD or LD.
Children with ADHD, problems with executive functioning and/or LD may have trouble following the rules of a game, taking turns, or struggle to pay close enough attention to engage appropriately in a sport or game. And, a combination of these can make any sport or physical activity challenging.
Solution & Reward
Consider a variety of sports and different types of teams that match your child’s skills and abilities. Perhaps a slower-paced sport like golf or baseball might be a better fit compared to soccer or basketball where the direction is constantly changing or football where the rules are more complex. Or, if your child doesn’t want to switch, make the extra effort to try out 2-3 different gymnastics classes/teachers or try a couple of soccer teams/coaches until you find the right fit for your child’s skill level and ability. It’s ok if the skill level doesn’t match your child’s age. Put them where they can thrive.
Social aspects of sports teams can be very challenging for kids with high-functioning autism or other special needs that affect their ability to engage appropriately with peers.
Our son with high-functioning autism had trouble feeling like he fit in with the other boys during practice and in the dugout. His challenges with social skills make it tough for him to just pal around and fit in with his teammates. And, the ever-dreaded “choosing teams” on the playground is of course difficult for these kids as well. I’ve often wondered, how many of the kids that are often chosen last for teams are actually struggling with a LD or developmental issue that makes them the less desirable choice?
Solution and Reward
Find a coach who embraces your child’s differences and helps them feel like a star.
We’ve been lucky. Our son has been embraced by a couple of great coaches throughout his sports career. Because they were aware of his differences, they made the extra effort to include our son and make him feel like a part of the team, despite his lacking technique. Don’t be afraid to talk to the coaches who are choosing their teams about your child’s challenges. You may be surprised how willing they are to accommodate your child and even see value in the accompanying teaching moments for everyone involved. There were times that we definitely felt like we might have won the game if our son hadn’t been in the lineup. But is winning really the most important thing? Or does embracing a child and making him feel included trump a perfect season?
Just Do ItMany kids with disabilities realize they are different and understand that may mean they aren’t going to be great at everything. Help them own it by teaching them self-advocacy skills such as how to gracefully bow out of a team situation or excel in an activity that they do enjoy.
Celebrity and avid autism advocate Holly Robinson Peete often talks and writes about her son Rodney Jackson’s (RJ) challenges with autism. Peete and her husband (former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete) both talk openly about how it was difficult to accept that RJ might not be a sports hero like his Dad.
“The other day he said, ‘Mom, I know my name is Rodney Peete, but I don’t want to play football. Is that okay? I want to play piano,’” Peete shared in a 2007 interview with People magazine.
Our son, who also excels in the piano, had the same epiphany this year. He came to us a few weeks ago and said that he didn’t want to play baseball anymore, even though he had been invited back for a third season by his coach. “I want to spend time doing something I’m really good at,” he told us. And, what parent is going to argue with that?
Lyn Pollard is a freelance writer, parent advocate, and the mother of two kids who learn and play differently. A former journalist and change management consultant, Lyn writes, talks and tweets about advocacy, literacy and safe schools for kids with learning disabilities and special needs. Check out her piece in the New York Times.