If you are a sports instructor or leader of an organised activity group, you may have an autistic person in your class or group. Here is short guide to help you meet their needs. You might also find it useful to read our information about autism.

Our advice and Active for Autism training is tailored towards anyone delivering sport and physical activity to autistic people, including:

  • sport/physical activity coaches
  • managers
  • volunteers
  • PE teachers
  • teaching assistants.

Communication

People on the autism spectrum communicate in different ways and many find eye contact difficult.

  • try to make your communication clear, concise and direct
  • many people on the autism spectrum are visual learners. Try to accompany verbal instructions with a demonstration and visual supports
  • read more about communication and interaction.

Adapting the environment

Many autistic people have sensory sensitivity which can affect one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. For a person on the autism spectrum, certain background sounds may be unbearably loud or distracting and cause anxiety.

  • try to reduce distractions and adopt a low arousal approach to reduce anxiety and aid concentration
  • be mindful of sensory differences and adapt sessions when required
  • sports halls and sports equipment can often be overwhelming environments. Begin by introducing new activities and new equipment in familiar surroundings
  • when you feel the participant is ready to transfer to the physical activity space, be prepared to start afresh when it comes to teaching and learning new skills. Many autistic people struggle with generalisation and may need to see/hear the activity steps repeated.

Planning your activity session and engaging participants

Planning ahead can help people know what to expect and feel confident in participating.

  • implement a consistent structure for each session, including having structure in an unstructured environment. For example, in breaks during the session, ensure that you have something prepared to keep your participants engaged
  • structure the session so that a new activity or a new skill is followed by a more familiar activity to ensure the participant maintains confidence in their abilities
  • be consistent in your approach across all activities. If participants are comfortable with visual aids in their familiar environments, try to include them in the new activity to encourage participation
  • if you know that a participant has a special interest, try to engage with it as a means of incentive or feedback
  • remember to reward participants when they attempt any new skill, as well as when they successfully complete a task. For some participants, the initial experience of a new activity or new environment can be extremely daunting
  • it is important to recognise participants' successes and achievements, but make sure praise is not exaggerated or 'over the top'. Feedback should be fair and constructive – by permanently giving praise, the real meaning behind it can be lost
  • don’t assume that all people on the autism spectrum dislike team games. Some people might find team games daunting but this does not always stop people from participating
  • people on the autism spectrum tend to 'live in the moment'. Confidence can be very negatively affected if an individual has a negative experience of sport or physical activity. Make sure they are enjoying 'the moment!'

Safety

Autistic people cannot always foresee the consequences of their actions.

  • some people on the autism spectrum may have a limited sense of danger. With this in mind, ensure that you have clear physical boundaries for each session and explain safety rules in a way that the person understands
  • be vigilant in checking for injuries, as autistic people may carry on participating, unaware that they have sustained an injury.

Siblings

Consider offering 'Sibling Sessions' to involve siblings so that your participants have a familiar face to go to. However try not to depend on siblings to look after their brother or sister, as they need to be able to enjoy the activities as well.

These tips are to help you deliver sport and physical activity to participants on the autism spectrum. The Active for Autism project supports autistic people in sport or physical activity by providing training for sports practitioners.

Further reading

Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger's syndrome: a guide for parents and professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley

Attwood, T. (2008). The complete guide to Asperger's syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley

Haddon, M. (2004). The curious incident of the dog in the night time. London: Red Fox Definitions

The National Autistic Society. (2003). Visual supports. London: The National Autistic Society

Scout Information Centre. (2008). Autism and Asperger syndrome. Online: www.scoutbase.org.uk/library/hqdocs/facts/pdfs/fs250025.pdf (19 November 2008)

Slade, L. (2007). Circle of friends. London: The National Autistic Society. Online: www.autism.org.uk/16877 (19 November 2008)

Spilsbury, L. (2001). What does it mean to have autism? Oxford: Heinemann

Wilkes, K. (2005) The sensory world of the autism spectrum a greater understanding. London: The National Autistic Society

Wing, L. (2002) The autistic spectrum: a guide for parents and professionals. London: Constable and Robinson  

Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/23143