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Supporting Specific Needs

Practical Strategies to Use When Coaching People with Autism

Available free until 23 February and then exclusive to UK Coaching Subscribers. This is the first in a two-part series, providing real-life examples of autistic behaviour that went unnoticed by coaches. Blake Richardson examines why these innocuous situations escalated and how such scenarios can be avoided by equipping coaches with some basic knowledge to give them a better understanding of the condition

Amanda Hoynes is an active triathlon coach with a special interest in making mainstream sport more accessible for people on the autism spectrum. Head Junior Coach at Durham Triathlon Club and a Coach Educator for British Triathlon, Amanda juggles this with being a parent of a sport-loving child with autism and her training and development business.

Her experiences as a parent, trainer and coach have convinced her that sport can transform the lives of people with autism.

Coaches have the opportunity to make a massive positive impact if they take a bit of time to build their understanding and knowledge of autism. And the best part? This will improve the quality of your coaching for everyone else too.

Most people don’t really know much about autism and would be unlikely to recognise many autistic traits. There is a saying that ‘if you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism’. 

If coaches don’t really understand what autism is, then how can they be expected to help them feel supported and included in their sessions?

The blunt answer is they can’t.

As a result of some coaches not necessarily recognising that there might be autistic people in their sessions, they may be making assumptions regarding challenging behaviour,’ says Amanda.

The upshot is that innocent situations can quickly spiral out of control, to the detriment of all the participants.

While it is indisputable that insufficient knowledge has a negative impact on autistic participants’ experience of sport, what is also beyond doubt is that this obstacle can be easily surmounted with some guidance on autism awareness.

This two-part series will hopefully provide a good starting point towards educating coaches and filling this awareness gap.

‘With some basic knowledge and understanding, there is a lot that coaches can do in their sessions to make it easier for people with autism,’ says Amanda. ‘And these simple changes can make it easier for everyone to participate fully in sport.’

Autism affects different people in different ways and to varying degrees, so there is no ‘one method fits all’ approach to coaching people with autism. 

We often hear the phrase ‘on the spectrum’, without fully comprehending its sheer scale and complexity. The ‘spectrum’ covers a huge range of different difficulties and challenges.

Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) is the umbrella term used to describe the lifelong symptoms and behaviours that affect the way in which a person experiences and reacts to the world around them and processes information.

Some of the main ways this can manifest itself include: verbal and non-verbal communication difficulties (in processing language, for example, and difficulty in understanding metaphors, ambiguous language or sarcasm); sensory sensitivities (oversensitivity to sound or touch); social challenges (including heightened fear and anxiety when interacting in social situations); repetitive patterns of behaviour and inflexible thinking.

To provide a person with autism with the correct level of support, therefore, it is crucial that any idiosyncrasies are observed and acted upon in an appropriate manner.

Factor in too that autism is often referred to as the ‘hidden condition’, because it can evade diagnosis well into adulthood – and quite often entirely – and you begin to understand why coaches might be hesitant and uncertain of how to proceed if they suspect someone in their team, group or club may have autism.

It is so important as a coach to keep it in the back of your mind that if someone is finding things difficult, then there might just be other issues there that they are not even aware of,’ says Amanda. 

Follow these links for a more detailed breakdown of the general characteristics of autism, Asperger Syndrome and ADHD.

Amanda remembers delivering a classroom session on behaviour to a group of coaches.

When presented with a range of scenarios and asked how they would react, the response from most people was: “Tell them that it is unacceptable”.

‘We went on to discuss positive ways of involving them in a session that often results in the desired behaviours without the need to resort to having to have stern words, which would most likely escalate the situation,’ says Amanda.

‘But it was interesting that, even when I added the layer, “let’s say this person has mental health issues or autism, would you feel any differently about it?”, they still concluded, after a quick pause for thought, that they needed to be told they were disrupting the session, or be removed from the session.

‘You do find people are more understanding if someone has a diagnosis of autism but if they haven’t been diagnosed, people are not very understanding at all where challenging behaviour is concerned.’

Amanda believes that coaches who have a greater awareness of what autism is and those who take the time to really get to know their participants will be more tolerant of such behaviours, and better still, be able to avoid most of these situations occurring in the first place.

If you can learn more about autism and understand where these difficulties come from, then you can begin to help. Often, it’s little things that make the biggest difference.

We will examine the importance of parental cooperation in the second article, and whether parents have a duty to inform the coach of their child’s diagnosis, but what of those participants who remain ‘off the radar’?

By developing a close relationship with your participants, making sure you connect with them by observing, noticing and communicating, you can start to spot tell-tale patterns of behaviour.

This requires coaches putting the person at the heart of their coaching.

A person-centred approach should underpin coaching practice anyway, so it is simply a matter of becoming hyper-aware in order to discern both internalised and externalised behaviour. 

Like a newly-acquired sixth sense, in the fullness of time coaches will learn to detect what may be invisible to the untrained eye – uncovering explanations that lie hidden just beneath the surface.

Amanda runs through some examples where she has observed participants struggling in coached situations.

Highlighting the difficulty some autistic people have with verbal processing and information overload, she explains: ‘Many people with autism find processing information difficult, especially if they find the situation stressful.

Coaches should not give too many options, move on too quickly or give too many verbal instructions. Allow enough time to let the information soak in. It may take five or six seconds to process what’s just been said, so if you keep talking they will miss the next thing you say, which could be the actual instruction.

Participants with autism who exhibit such characteristics may have excellent observational skills and be very perceptive but there may be something else distracting their attention. They might be picking up on certain smells, the noise of the air conditioning, the heavy rain bouncing off the roof of the hall, or other sounds that are going on in the room that are adding to their mental load. They may also be struggling due to social discomfort or just being in very close proximity to other people.

I prefer a more visual, less auditory approach, and try to distil things into fewer words. And cutting your words down to the key messages helps everyone, not just people with autism. 

Leaving a gap, letting people process it, and then checking in with a person and asking if they have understood can be a big help. Often people with autism won’t ask if they missed what you said, or don’t understand – they’ll look to see what everyone else does and try to work it out for themselves. To you that may look like they are just standing around, not doing anything.’

It can rankle if, in the eyes of someone on the autism spectrum, they deem a coach has failed to demonstrate a new skill adequately. Or they might take exception when fellow team-mates don’t follow the rules or don’t wait their turn.

‘They are likely to point this out in a direct manner, and some coaches don’t appreciate this. 

‘I have witnessed myself people who find it especially annoying when another member of the group says "that's easy" or they get praise from the coach for doing something with incorrect technique.

‘One example I recall is that a person with autism felt that she had wasted her time listening to something and got increasingly agitated throughout the session. The coach recognised that she was upset but couldn’t work out what had caused it. They asked for feedback from the parents and discovered this resulted from the coach explaining a new drill in detail to the group and then, instead of being allowed to do it, she was instead given another drill that she had done lots of times before. 

‘She didn’t tell the coach this but struggled for the rest of the session and took this as meaning she wasn’t good enough or was being treated unfairly. A simple change would be to set her off doing her drills first before explaining the new drill to the rest of the group. The coach in this case actively sought feedback, increased her understanding of autism and was able to avoid this in future.’

Team-mates not sticking to the rules is another thing that people with autism often struggle with and can result in behavioural issues if not dealt with.

Whenever there is a flare-up with other children, there is potential for the coach to further inflame things by their knee-jerk reaction, turning an already tense situation into a double whammy of distress for someone on the autism spectrum.

Coaches can jump in too early. I’ve seen it lots of times; people trying to help, but not allowing them time to calm themselves.

Coaches may want to nip bad behaviour in the bud before it can spread, but a child with autism may refuse to back down from their position, so a forceful approach is destined to rebound on the coach.

Think of it like a jigsaw puzzle. The more signs and symptoms you can identify, the more pieces begin to fall into place and the clearer picture you can begin to build of the child or adult’s individual needs.

So, for instance: “I know that Billy doesn’t like it when others crowd him so I will make sure that there are no more than three players in a queue at a time during cricket net practice.”

Or: “I know from experience that Sarah covering her face in her hands is a sign she is distressed. This is my cue to give her a time-out or a job to do.”

Acting oddly, like putting a hood over your face, is classic autism shut-down behaviour,’ says Amanda as she embellishes on this behavioural trait.

The rules are you can’t just get up and leave. But at the same time, you find it very difficult to stay and be there so you just kind of retreat after hitting your limit of what you can take. It is a clear signal but it is important for coaches to understand that they are not intentionally being rude.’

Just as the range of behaviours that are a hallmark of autism are vast and variable, so are the different strategies that can be employed to help manage those behaviours.

Too many to address in one article. So in part two, we will look at the importance of working alongside parents; ‘special interests’; how to adapt your coaching to make it easier for people with autism and celebrating the many positive features of the autistic mind.

Coaching People with Autism Series

More reflections on the challenges people with autism face and simple strategies that coaches can implement to adapt their sessions

Essential advice

Related Learning

  • Coaching the Person in Front of You

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  • Coaching People with a Visual Impairment

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  • Keeping Deaf and Disabled Children Safe in Sport

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