Autism And The Special Olympics: Our Family’s Journey

It took a while to find the perfect sport for Lucas to participate in. He tried football but would meltdown every time the team intercepted the ball because, no matter how many times we explained the rules, he was convinced they were cheating by taking the ball. Soccer games were spent running around the edges of the field, not even paying attention to the ball’s location. He tried karate as well but the rigid rules just weren’t a fit with Luke’s personality and trying to do the step-by-step katas that other kids were seeming to master so easily just frustrated him. His brain just couldn’t remind his body of the steps fast enough for him to perform the sequence of steps he needed to do.

Eventually we found a few things that he could participate in that were perfect for him. He joined a boy’s hip-hop class (with an inclusion aide) where they slowly worked on one recital piece for most of the year and then spent the rest of the time learning dance moves that they were encouraged to be creative with. Luke joined a baseball team made for kids like him who can’t otherwise play baseball on a team and there are a lot of volunteers and parents on the field with the kids to help. He also discovered a love of gymnastics, which is more of an individual sport with teammates to cheer you on and involves the movement his body so desperately craves.

We originally tried gymnastics at the park district (with an inclusion aide) but they spent most of the time every week waiting in a line to do somersaults and cartwheels. Lucas got bored easily and the waiting was difficult which led to behavior issues but we stuck it out because he loved the sport so much. When I learned about a Special Olympics gymnastics program that was starting up at a local gymnastics place I quickly signed him up.

For years I wasn’t sure if Lucas was allowed to participate in Special Olympics because I didn’t know if Autism “qualified” but it turns out it’s based on the child and not necessarily any specific diagnosis. When Lucas first started on his Special Olympics team I searched online to learn more about what participating as a child who has Autism was like and there was nothing so that’s why I wanted to share a bit about my son’s experience and what I’ve observed.

This is Luke’s second year participating in the Special Olympics. Last year he went to Regionals and the State competition and this year he participated in Regionals and will be headed to the State competition again over the summer for the Illinois Special Olympics “Summer Games”. He competed in only two events last year but this year is competing in all six events available for male gymnasts.

The competitions we have been to are in large areas which may be hard if your child has any sensory processing difficulties. Lucas has SPD but is a seeker so he has no problem with large crowds, bright lights, or loud noises but those that are avoiders may find the competition atmosphere overwhelming. It did seem like our local organization tried to help this situation by splitting the Regionals into AM and PM sessions so all the participants weren’t in the gym at the same time. I think some may benefit from competing just in front of a small group without all the other participants and observers around but it didn’t seem like any of those accomodations were made (which could be because nobody requested them or because that wasn’t an option- I’m not sure.)

I was a bundle of nerves the first competition he went to. Parents are not allowed on the gym floor during competition so I wouldn’t be near him if he needed me. Knowing that he typically melts down when he makes a mistake and with a crowd of people watching my biggest fear is that he would mess up, start yelling, and take off running. Sure enough it happened. He did the wrong jump during the vault event, realized it as soon as he landed, and ran out of the gym. Thankfully he has an awesome coach and staff that are wonderful with him and had learned, by that point in his first year, how to de-escalate the situation by helping him calm down. By the time I got from the upstairs viewing area and found them he had calmed down a bit but by the time he was ready to go back in his group had moved on to another event and he couldn’t do his second jump. I was dissapointed because that seems like something that should be allowed for those that need it. I understand the need to move on when there are a lot of participants that need to have a turn but letting the child go back later to finish the event should be an accomodation that is easy enough to make.

I discovered that, in Special Olympics, all participants get some kind of reward. They have gold, silver, and bronze medals for the three who receive the highest scores in each event but then everyone else receives ribbons. Losing can be extremely difficult for those on the Autism Spectrum so it’s nice that everyone who participates feels like a winner. Some may not like this practice of participation awards but, in this instance especially, I think it’s important for these athletes to be encouraged and rewarded. They may not have won but they put in a lot of hard work!

At this year’s Regionals event Lucas won 3 Gold and 4 Silver medals. You only need to receive one Gold medal in any event to move on to the State competion where you can then compete in everything (even if you didn’t receive a Gold medal in that event.) He is very excited and very proud of his medals. Just look at that bling!

Overall, our experience with Special Olympics Illinois has been wonderful. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it’s been great for Lucas to be a part of. He has developed skill-wise, enjoyed being part of a team, and gained a lot of self-confidence. I’d love to connect with others who have loved ones that are interested in participating in the Special Olympics and am happy to answer questions you may have. You can chat with me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Interested in getting your child involved in sports? Check out my guide to help you figure out what sport would be a good fit for them based on their personality, interests, and natural skills! My boys have benefited greatly from participating in sports (which you can read about more here.)

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