By Lara Stolman
8-year-old Casey is in many ways like any other boy, especially when it comes to his passion for sports, and particularly competitive swimming. But he has a problem that affects us all.
Casey is autistic. That isn’t the problem.
Casey would be thrilled if he could swim in a relay race with his peers. Feel the sense of camaraderie of a team. Experience the pride of physical achievement. Form memories and bonds with his teammates and their families. Cement a strong connection to his community through the vibrant local culture of sports, starting with the neighborhood swim team and graduating all the way to the high school team.
Autism isn’t standing in the way of this. Sure, it’s a roadblock, but years of occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy and more have given him the motor skills, coordination and focus to begin competing with his peers. That is, if he had been able to start playing sports when they did, way back when they were three.
Now it doesn’t matter what sorts of laws exist to demand equal opportunity for kids with disabilities in school sports. Casey is so far behind typical kids in his access to athletics that he’s missed out on all of the developmental and social benefits he could have been gaining up to this point, and he won’t have a prayer of making any school team when they start in middle school.
This isn’t just a squandered opportunity for Casey. It’s a loss for the entire community.
Not Making the Cut
It’s hard enough for a typical child to keep up with the hyper-competitive scene that is youth sports today. But if your child has autism, he or she can barely get into the game from the get go. Community leagues simply aren’t welcoming enough to kids with autism and other developmental disabilities, even when only slight modifications or support are needed to accommodate them. So parents are forced to create their own solutions if they don’t want their children to wither on the sidelines.
Whether you believe that the increasingly ramped-up intensity and competition for young kids in sports are a good thing or not, we can all recognize that playing sports provides a host of important benefits for our bodies and minds, from exercise to community engagement to the development of social skills, self-esteem, teamwork and leadership.
Children like Casey often gain even more from sports than typical kids, as they tend to be more deficient in the skills that sports enhances. As their peers grow stronger and more confident from their participation in sports, autistic kids fall further behind, so the social and physical gaps between them and typical peers grow even wider. Their exclusion from community sports and the associated social activities that surround sports, either intentionally or by default, sets the stage for further segregation, ostracization and isolation.
This isn’t just damaging to the children who are left out. When typical children are denied exposure to children with differences, they lose the opportunity to learn important life lessons, like how to accept people who may not look or act like you do. These are harder concepts to teach when kids are older, after the clay has hardened and there has been little interaction from which to build opinions based on personal experiences. After years of minimal exposure, autistic kids can more easily be seen as “the other.”
And of course it’s not just the children with disabilities who become isolated. Their families grow increasingly separated from the community, with fewer common activities and occasions to interact.
A Team of Their Own
While many autistic kids can’t participate in sports with typical kids, no matter what well-intentioned efforts may exist, there’s something wrong when the number of kids with disabilities on community teams is zero. Given the current reality, families of autistic kids are banding together to form their own teams. I’ve met some of these families and was so inspired by their determination and personal victories that I began filming their experiences for a documentary film.
The Jersey Hammerheads swim team was formed by an Edison, NJ family that decided to create their own opportunities, and the result has been life-changing for everyone involved. What’s stunning to see is the way in which some of the athletes on the team shed the symptoms of their disabilities while swimming. They become no different than typical kids, and sometimes excel even beyond the abilities of their typical peers. Two boys on the team are now swimming with their local YMCA‘s team, two more swim for their high school teams and one swims with an elite private swim club that boasts Rebecca Soni as an alumna. The experience is revelatory for both the children on the team, which includes Casey, and their parents.
“We didn’t realize how important sports could be in our son’s life,” one mother told me. “His capability and success have changed my whole outlook on what’s possible for his future.” She now believes that as a result of his success in sports, and especially swimming, college is within reach for her son. “If he can learn this, he can learn other things too.”
Sensitivity towards those with special needs, opening up a dialogue with parents of typical and disabled kids about inclusion, and setting a community example of the benefits to every kid when those with differences are allowed to compete — all of this is not an impediment to creating a winning team. In fact, it’s the height of good sportsmanship, creating a richer experience that helps all athletes in both the game and life. And isn’t that one of the best legacies you could hope your child inherits from an experience that will likely not last past high school?
I applaud the efforts by parents, like those who formed the Jersey Hammerheads, to come together and — through force of sheer will — create an athletic experience for their kids that typical families take for granted. By using grassroots techniques and working with generous organizations like the Special Olympics and the YMCA, these families are helping their children reap the benefits of sports, and I have found that the extent of these benefits can be staggering.
When every child is shown early on that inclusiveness is a paramount value to strive for, we all win.
Swim Team screens at the IFC Center (323 6th Ave, New York) from July 7-13. Lori Podvesker, Senior Manager of Disability and Education Policy at INCLUDEnyc, will participate in a Q&A following the screening on Sunday, July 9 at 7:45pm.