Sports, exercise and physical activities are very important in human daily life. Individuals with all ages and range improve their fitness and health through exercise programs (Kasser & Lytle, 2005). It is very common for typical functioning children to participate in sports and physical activities. Through participating in sports and physical activities, its help improve children’s motor abilities and social skills.
On the other hand, special needs children, especially children with autism commonly face difficulties engaging in social play activities with peers (Wolfberg, 1995, p. 193), especially children with autism. Autism is a life-long neurobiological, developmental disorder, which typically diagnosed in childhood (Dawson, 2009). Autism affects a child’s ability to communicate, understand language, play and relate to others (Kasser & Lytle, 2005).
Many of the parents or professionals who work with autism children stressed the importance of building educational programs before school age, which result to reduce non-adaptive behaviours and to contribute to the alleviation of autism symptoms focusing on communication skills, appropriate independence and personal care to children with autism two years of age to adulthood (Ibrahim & Nasser Abu Zaid Ali, 2010).
As we know, participating in sports, especially engaging in team sports, for example basketball, football, and baseball, which require communication with team members or body language. Thus, it is somehow challenging for children with autism to participate in these activities when they are having difficulties communicate and understand language. Other than difficulties in communications, researcher also discovers that limited motor functioning, low motivation, difficulty in planning, and difficulty in self-monitoring could be the challenges for individuals with autism to participate in physical activity (Dawson, 2009).
Despite the difficulties of participating in physical activities faced by children with special needs, it is still important for children with special needs to engage in sports and other physical activities. Researcher has suggested that through participating in sports, its help to improve physical fitness and general motor function of individual with autism, decrease negative, self-stimulating behaviours, discourage aggressive and self-injurious behaviours, increased attention span (Dawson, 2009), and increased appropriate responding (Kern et al., 1998; as cited in Todd & Reid, 2006).
Besides the improvements on motor functions and behavioural wise, researcher also proven that participating in physical activities help autism promote self-esteem, increase general levels of happiness, and at the same time lead to positive social outcomes. Moreover, those who are able to join in team sports, it usually helps to develop social relationships among team members, and this helps them to recognize social cues throughout their training process (Dawson, 2009). There was a study carried out by Todd and Reid (2006), by increasing physical activity with individuals with autism, it has supported that by consistently participated in snowshoeing and walking/jogging, individuals with autism have shown better self-monitoring and independence.
There was a project done by Chui & Lim (2009&2010) in APSN Chaoyang School, Singapore about Gross Motor Programme – for the ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder). They mentioned that gross motor skills are important for ASD, despite that for them to be able to participate in physical activities with family members, peers and the community (for example playground play, sports day, outings and etc), it provides chances for their social skills development. Through structured and consistent practices, gross motor skills of children with ASD could be improved, and thus chances of getting involved in social activities increased. Children with ASD who participated in this two years project have better performance on their participation, perseverance, sportsmanship and fair play, and stamina and endurance.
Many of the researches or parents who have the same experience of encouraging their autistic children to participate in sports suggested that most of the children with autism did not work well in team sports, which require loads of social and communication skills. However, each individual are vary from one another. Connelly (2015) has suggested 5 sports for children with autism: biking, track and field, swimming, horseback riding and gymnastic. These sports have team components, but they work better for children with autism than typical team sports (football, baseball and etc); moreover, communication with teammates in these suggested sports is less important. It is important for the individual to choose what he/she likes to participate in too, it is no harm trying to switch to another sports if the child is displaying frustration when engaging in the typical sports.
For children with special needs, the term “inclusive physical activity” is important. Inclusive physical activity carries the meaning of “practice of ensuring that all individuals, regardless of ability or age, have equal opportunity in physical activity”, and it “attempts to ensure that all individuals have the chance to benefit from inclusive and accommodating programming, regardless of age or ability level” (p.6). Other than that, inclusive physical activity emphasizes that it is important that each individuals have the opportunity to join in age-appropriate and ability-appropriate activity, and options of activities for the individual to choose from (Kasser & Lytle, 2005).
Inclusive physical activity allows all range of individual, including those with special needs, to participate in physical activity. Through inclusive physical education environments, it provides opportunities for children with special needs to be involved in all kinds of events and field trips. Moreover, it provides opportunities to value and respect individual differences; and thus children grow up appreciating their own skills and valuing the unique skills and abilities of others (Kasser & Lytle, 2005). However, autism children may not able to participate in every activity without help or support, so it is more effective if the coach or the assistant is willing to assist or modify a particular activity that the special needs children is joining in. By enhancing peer awareness of the needs of modification, it allows peers to understand the children with special needs better. Emphasizing the reason of modification of an activity to the peers is important as well, as the modification allow students increased participation during activities and a chance to achieve success equal to others (Kasser & Lytle, 2005).
Sportsmen or coaches will play an important role to children with autism when they are putting in effort to join in physical activities. Through helping children with autism, understanding the characteristics and symptoms of them is an important way for the coaches to build rapport and trust. However, every autistic child has different characteristics and sensory experiences. There was a research done by Concordia University (2011), which gathered 17 elite coaches who was once been athletes themselves, target to examine how coaches bring in moral influence over athletes and how they respond. The study shows evidence that coaches-athlete relationship enables a coach to influence their athletes. One of the reasons is because the athletes admire and trust their coaches, or the coaches have significant power to them (Concordia University, 2011).
Character Education Through Sports (n.d.) has suggested few ways to coach athletes with ASD, for example establish realistic, challenging, and specific goals, instead of “do your best” goal, as it will be more effective. Praise is important too, and coaches should praise whenever a step is mastered or a desired behaviour is achieved. The coach should model positive attitude in front of the athletes, as they learn to believe in themselves if the coach believe in them. Coach can also help to establish social “rules” as this will help the athletes to learn to acknowledge and process social cues and decide on specific social skills they will use as they engage in an activity. Using visual prompts such as photo, picture, drawing/ scoring on the whiteboard, video clip and modelling are essential for autism to better participate in sports, because children with autism have strong visual perception, this made easy understanding and effective participation, without the sense of being left out in the group. Other than that, it is good to implementing consistent team rules, but offer flexibility in environment and processes. It is important for the coach to stay calm and exercise patience all the time, avoid any ridicule or criticism that may humiliate the children with autism. (Character Education Through Sports, n.d.) By promoting positive environment, children with autism will be able to show interest and enjoy better in the activity.
Other than the strategies provided by Character Education Through Sports, Keeling et al., (2003) suggested that using power card strategy is able to teach sportsmanship skills to children with autism. Power Card Strategy (Gagnon, 2001; as cited in Keeling et al., (2003), is a “visually oriented method designed to promote or facilitate an acceptable behaviour or skill by connecting it to an individual’s particular special interest”. The participant in the study was an autistic 10 year-old girl. She was having behavioural issues such as whining and screaming when she loses a game. After few days of using Power Card consistently with her, she was able to read the script on the card and stayed calm when she loses the game.
As a conclusion, it is important for every individual include children with special needs to participate in sports, as it enhance physical fitness, gross motor skills, improve social skills and create sense of happiness of achievements. Moreover, children with autism learn different skills through sports, either physically or socially, which help their development in their life. Cooperate appropriately with sportsmen or coaches with positive environment and other support (for example visual prompts and Power Card) help them achieve better in sports.