For a gymnastics instructor, teaching a student who has autism can be scary at first. Many of these children can easily be mainstreamed in a class, but others require one on one instruction and have difficulty participating in a busy gym environment. Yes, it may be helpful for the instructor to have a background in special education, but it’s not necessary. The parents of a child with autism are usually the best resource. They can share information about the student’s physical and mental development, communication skills, and helpful hints about working with the child. Before including a student who has autism in a class, it is best to schedule an interview to introduce the student to the instructor as well as show him/her around the gym. It is important to determine whether the child will be able to participate in a mainstream class, a special needs class, or require one on one instruction.
Once you have enrolled a student with autism in your gym, the adventure begins! Often these children have trouble communicating and expressing their feelings, but when they want to take extra turns on the trampoline and eagerly reach for the high bar, you know they are learning and having fun at gymnastics. I have found that teaching students with special needs has made me a better instructor. I have to be more organized in the structure of my class, break skills down into very minute parts to make sure the students are always safe and successful, and give clear and concise instructions in the same way every time.
Parents of students with autism want the same things for their children that all parents want. Manya Parker says this about her daughter’s experience in gymnastics: “I think that gymnastics has helped Darby in all aspects of her life. One of the most important things to me is the upper body strength and coordination. She seems to really enjoy the music, and the movement of it. The rhythmic side of gymnastics got her attention span to really expand from a few minutes in the beginning to the whole class time now. We will continue with gymnastics as long as it helps her and she enjoys it. Darby says gymnastics is really good and she likes the ball, ribbon, and rope the best. Darby also says that she likes to see all her friends at practice.”
Children who have autism face challenges in life everyday. Amanda Baskin, whose daughter has taken gymnastics for two years, wrote this: “After a very hard week at school, when Charlotte had been bullied and one child had even told her he was going to shoot her dead, I asked Charlotte what she would like to do that would make her feel better. Without hesitation she said to me “I want to go to gymnastics, it makes me feel good.” When all is said and done, children who have autism are just kids. They need a place to learn to run, jump, tumble, swing, balance, and climb. But most of all, they need a place where they feel welcome, and an instructor who believes in them and encourages them to be the best that they can be, no matter what challenges they face in life.
Submitted by Cindy Bickman
USA Gymnastics’ Special Olympics