Special Olympics Australia shows how to
include people with autism in sport

By Andrea Phillips

September 2020

INTENSE DEMAND for tools to teach children with autism physical education has been revealed by a sell-out webinar series delivered in the past three months during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Special Olympics Australia’s webinar series titled, Autism Inclusion in Sport, Recreation and Physical Education drew thousands of front-line sport deliverers including teachers, coaches, and disability support workers looking to better include people with autism in physical activity.

Special Olympics Australia’s Sarah Wheadon designed the series to help address the experiences of exclusion people with autism face, with funding from Sport and Recreation Victoria. Originally intended for face-to-face presentation to specialist audiences of 15, the pandemic inspired a pivot to e-learning that delivered much greater impact.

More than 2,120 sports administrators, coaches, and teachers registered for six webinars covering topical themes including inclusive practice for physical education teachers and schools. Most participants were experienced in teaching sport and physical education but lacked confidence in practicing inclusion.

Elise Muller, an Indigenous Victorian Football League Women’s athlete, shares her experience of going to school as a child with autism during the webinars.  

Muller recounts that participating in physical education at school was her first experience with sport – and the first time she experienced feeling connected to the world. 

“I was bouncing the ball, and it was what everyone was meant to do.” 

School sport also gave rise to experiences of exclusion for Muller, which had lasting impacts. When teachers nominated children to pick their peers for teams, she was the last to be chosen, despite being a proficient player.

“I gave up on wanting to participate, I protected myself and withdrew, and I became really anxious and suicidal.”

- Elise Muller, Indigenous Victorian Football League Women’s athlete

“The messages I received were that I am different, I am not wanted, I am not enough, I am inappropriate and stupid, it’s not ok to be myself and I don’t belong.”

These experiences gave Muller a fear of participating and a belief that she was unwanted.

“I learnt it is inaccessible to be included, so I gave up on wanting to participate. I realised it is safer to not want to participate, so I protected myself and withdrew. This had a significant effect on my mental health. I learnt that the world didn’t want me, and I became really anxious and suicidal.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that there are 106,600 young people with autism attending school. The webinars provide a much-needed resource for teachers wanting skills and approaches to educate students with autism effectively – including in physical education.

Another webinar series presenter, Kellie Tait, started non-profit organisation Access All Abilities Sports in Ballarat, after noticing the scarcity of participation opportunities in organised sports for children with special needs and disabilities. The webinars’ key strong point, Tait says, is that they give teachers practical strategies and tools to engage students with autism.

“Schools and sports clubs are often not equipped to support students with autism successfully. This series offers easily-implemented strategies to support everyone’s needs.”

- Kellie Tait, founder of Access All Abilities Sports

“Mainstream schools, sports clubs and organisations are often not equipped to support students with autism successfully. This series addresses that and offers easily-implemented strategies to support everyone’s needs.”

Physical education and sport can be important means for developing skills and social connection for people with autism, of whom there are 205,200 in Australia. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures revealed a 25 per cent increase in the number of people with autism between 2015 and 2018. Research has shown the increased prevalence is due to a clinical shift towards diagnosing children with less severe behavioural symptoms.

The nation’s diverse population is looking for sporting options that promote inclusion, according to Sport Australia. It reports that one in five Australians has a disability – including around 765,665 people with an intellectual disability – making a compelling business case for inclusion. If people are choosing sporting codes based on inclusiveness, then sports need to promote themselves as leaders in inclusion to increase membership and sponsorship opportunities.

This means they need the know-how to provide all-abilities programs – something Special Olympics Australia has been doing since 1976.

Special Olympics Australia launched e-learning platform, SOA Learn, in July 2018 to help teachers and coaches improve their effectiveness in including people with intellectual disabilities and autism in sport. It comprises resources built on best practice information and provides unique insights into the perspective of people with intellectual disabilities and autism to inform provision of inclusive sports programs.

The Autism Inclusion in Sport, Recreation and Physical Education webinars remain freely accessible on SOA Learn for anyone seeking skills to successfully attract and keep people with intellectual disabilities and autism playing sport.

 

Click here to access the webinar series.

 

Special Olympics and inclusion of people with autism

Within the global movement dedicated to providing sport for people with intellectual disability, inclusion of people with autism has been a hot topic. Special Olympics Australia set the agenda, pioneering policy that all people with autism are welcome in the organisation.

By contrast, current policy of global governing body Special Olympics International is that an athlete with autism must have an associated intellectual disability. There is confusion around what this means. Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed based on behavioural and developmental criteria, while intellectual disability is a term used to describe a person with certain limitations in cognitive functioning and adaptive skills such as communication and self-care.

Special Olympics International is still in the throes of considering whether to follow Australia and include all people with autism.

Special Olympics Australia CEO Corene Strauss said: “Like everyone who joins Special Olympics Australia, some participants with autism will join to have fun, make friends and enjoy the warmth of a friendly community. Others who join will focus on physical performance and achieving personal bests and medals.”

 

SPECIAL OLYMPICS AUSTRALIA

Combining the transformative power of sport and a holistic approach to athlete well-being enables Special Olympics Australia to support a better life for people with an intellectual disability.

Special Olympics Australia strives to ensure that everyone living with an intellectual disability can participate in sport. Our dedicated network of volunteers creates accessible sports training, coaching and competition opportunities that allow people with an intellectual disability to reach their personal best – in sport and in life.

We provide:

  • Weekly grassroots sporting, recreational, social and health activities in local communities around Australia.
  • An environment where people with an intellectual disability can develop physical fitness, build self-esteem, demonstrate courage, and make friends.
  • Competition pathways ranging from weekly club events, to regional, state, and national games, culminating in the Special Olympics World Games.

 

SOA LEARN

Special Olympics Australia launched e-learning platform, SOA Learn, in July 2018 to help coaches, teachers and other front-line sport deliverers improve their effectiveness in including people with intellectual disabilities and autism in sport. It comprises resources built on best practice information and provides unique insights into the perspective of people with intellectual disabilities and autism to inform provision of inclusive sports programs.

Courses currently available include:

  • Autism Inclusion in Sport, Recreation and Physical Education Webinar Series: Practical strategies to include people with autism in sport, physical education, and recreation programs.
  • Young Athletes Coaching Course: A play-based program for children with and without intellectual disabilities aged two to eight, Young Athletes focuses on activities that support social and physical growth and creates a transition pathway into a more structured sporting environment. The Young Athletes Coaching Accreditation Course introduces the program, with practical tips and resources to help community coaches, educators and parents teach young children fundamental movement skills.
  • An Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorder: An overview of autism; practical strategies that coaches, teachers, and anyone else can use to create welcoming and engaging sport programs for people with autism; and insight into the sporting experiences of people living with the condition.
  • Improving Sport for People with Intellectual Disability: Using latest research from world-leading sporting bodies, this course supports those in community sports clubs and school to include people with intellectual disabilities in sport and provides insight from people with intellectual disabilities.
  • SOA Activity Cards and Activity Cards Coaches’ Guide: Developed in partnership with Sport Australia to help teach sport and physical activity skills to people of all abilities.

SOA Learn has a growing number of registered users, currently totalling more than 3000.