Monday, May 25, 2015

The Benefits of Sports for ASD Kids

"It was through the world of sports and legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn that I was able to find my voice and thus communicate with the world."
Ethan Hanson was diagnosed with high functioning Asperger's syndrome when he was 4 years old. Asperger's is an Autism Spectrum Disorder which is characterized through difficulties with social interactions, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. Ethan's mother was told by doctors that he would never live a normal life. Ethan had aggressive behaviours that were a result of frustrations stemming from a lack of appropriate communication strategies and peer interactions. He was bullied for being "different" and struggled to find a place where he fit in, until he discovered sports. So what is the benefit of recreational sports for children with ASD?
1. There are rules.

Children with ASD and Asperger's are rule seekers. They are most successful in environments that are consistent and predictable, much like that of a basketball court or a soccer field. While we can't always predict the call of a referee, sport teaches children about flexibility and subjectivity while maintaining much needed structure.  Ethan was a speed reader and would memorize sports stats using his strong mathematical memory. He took comfort in the predictability of numbers and math and would apply them to his life both on and off the field. 

"I’d turn off the volume so I could talk, then I’d close my eyes and imagine I was there then open my eyes to watch the game and call the game as if I were Chick Hearn or Marv Albert. I never missed a game and I would stay up past my bedtime to continue to announce." 

2. Improved Social Skills.

Finding a safe, non-threatening environment to hone physical activity skills will also provide a number of social skills development opportunities, including: leadership, empathy, turn taking and healthy competition. Ethan was bullied at school which led to fighting and a lack of social relationships with his peers. A a competitive child, he would throw tantrums when he lost and had difficulty coping with his own high expectations. When his Mom put him into Martial Arts, he learned valuable lessons about respect and self-reflection. The sport expected a strict discipline that demanded a harnessing of his anger towards something positive. 
"It wasn't just getting to throw people around, it was about learning to respect your opponents and teachers."
3. Combats Weight Gain.

The risk of adolescent weight gain in children with Autism can be partly attributed to a lack of physical activity and inconsistent dietary patterns, and partly to the side effects of widely used anti-psychotic prescription drugs. Children with Autism can have sensory sensitivities that make them picky eaters and they may have aversions to certain textures and temperatures

4. Decreases Behaviours.

One characteristic of ASD is "stimming", which are repetitive behaviours such as rocking back and forth, head nodding and hand flapping. The highly structured routines of individual sports such as running or swimming are similar to and can distract from the repetitive behaviours associated with ASD. Ethan's behaviours manifested in attention-seeking aggression towards family and peers. He would headbutt his younger brother and clench his fists in rage when he didn't get his way. Football allowed Ethan to release a lot of aggression he felt towards his family, peers and himself.

 "It was all about contact, intensity, toughness and discipline." 

6. Sensory input.

Movement and activity can help those ASD children with Sensory Processing Disorders. Coordination is often difficult for children who have poor Proprioception, which is the ability to locate the body in space. Therapy can include pushing heavy objects and lifting weights.

7. Builds Confidence.

Self-esteem is built when an individual succeeds and is praised. Similar to the effects of Applied Behavioural Analysis, the positive reinforcement one receives from recreational sports builds a sense of physical and emotional self-worth for kids with Autism. Organized sport allowed Ethan to express himself in a positive way. He attributes his success to those who recognized his talent and pushed and motivated him to excel in what he succeeded in. 
"Just because the world sees you as different doesn't make you bad, it means that you are powerful beyond what they can imagine. At the end of the day, people like us are born with the potential to do wonderful things for the world." 

Ethan Hanson is a play-by-play sports announcer with Asperger's Syndrome. After high school he attended Pierce College and became the school sports broadcaster for football, basketball, soccer, volleyball, baseball and soccer. He has been broadcasting high school and junior college sports for 5 years, and is currently a contributor for the Last Word on Sports and hosts his own webshow "Deuces Wild." 

READ MORE about Ethan's journey.
Follow @EthanAHanson

Find out more about Asperger's Syndrome.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Letter to Kadence...

In honour of Mother's Day, I am happy to share a post written by my good friend and co-worker Andrea Haefele. Andrea's daughter Bella is a student of mine and from the outside presents as a non-verbal learner with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. Andrea's advocacy for her daughter's exceptional needs knows no bounds, and recently has included the training and guidance of the newest member of their family - Kadence. Read her story below...
Dear Kadence,
We’ve waited almost three years for you to come into our lives.  I can’t begin to tell you how thankful I am that you are finally a member of our family.

I know that you’ve already been through a lot and have worked very hard to get to where you are today. From birth, you were exposed to different noises and obstacles to help encourage confidence and curiosity. You were then raised by a foster family who gave you basic training and socialized you to as many sights, sounds and smells to prepare you for your future career. When you were only one-year-old, you left your foster family to endure many assessments, and you were carefully selected to become an Autism Assistance Dog Guide. Since February, you were matched with our daughter Bella and have officially joined our family. Our household is now filled with high-pitched screams of excitement every morning when Bella sees you. You’ve brought such a sense of joy and hope into our lives.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve carried a lot of weight on my shoulders. I wake up every morning and go to bed every night worrying. When Bella was a baby, I would worry about why she wasn’t hitting her milestones like the other babies. I worried that she would never be able to walk. I worried that the doctors would never be able to provide us with a diagnosis that would explain why she was different. Now that Bella is 6 and in kindergarten, I worry if she has friends to play with at recess. I worry about her hurting herself because she does not walk steadily. I worry about her wandering away and getting lost because she has no sense of personal safety. I worry about her getting sick and enduring another seizure. I worry that I’m not doing enough to help her reach her potential. Most of all, I worry about her future.
One of the hardest challenges that I have faced as a parent to a child with special needs is having to rely on others to help my child because I can’t. Although as a teacher I help students on a daily basis to reach their goals and soar beyond their potential, there’s only so much that I can do for my little girl. I’ve had to learn to trust doctors, specialists, therapists, educational assistants, and her teachers to provide the tools that I don’t have to help Bella. Over the past years, granting these experts our trust has paid off because their training has helped Bella to learn how to walk and communicate with us with the help of visual aids and picture cards.

We’ve worked very hard to get Bella to where she is today. However, I never expected to, one day, welcome the expertise of a four-legged furry creature who wags her bum, drools and passes gas unapologetically.
We are now on the journey of, not only embracing you as part of our lives, but entrusting you with our happy little girl. The trainers have told us that it may take up to a year until you meaningfully bond with Bella. Because she is non-verbal, I know it is challenging for you to read her and understand her needs. However, in just the few months that you have been with us, you have already learned Bella’s pace as she tiptoes while she plays, and stomps while she walks. You quietly lie beside Bella when she is in her IBI, speech and language, and physiotherapy sessions and provide her with the self- assurance and confidence that she needs. You tolerate her pulling and whacking on your tail because you see that it makes her giggle. You lick her hand because you know she likes the feeling of your teeth and your tongue. When Bella wakes up crying in the middle of the night, you’re beginning to check on her and turn Bella’s terrified cries into reassured smiles.

Kadence, I admire your work ethic, patience, and manners. As I load the kids into the car, you sit by my side until you are given the command to jump in. You always wait patiently for your food as Bella is learning how to place it into your bowl, and refuse your dog treats before we give you the command to go ahead. When other dogs bark at you for your attention, or when a squirrel runs across the road, you continue walking straight ahead because you know you have a job to do.

I wonder if you’ll ever truly grasp the importance of your role, not only for Bella, but for all of us. We will never be able to provide Bella with the companionship and emotional support that you can. Nothing makes Bella’s smile larger than seeing you. I look forward to witnessing your growing bond and seeing Bella thrive with you by her side.
Now that Bella is getting older and taller, she is beginning to stand out when we’re out in public. I can see it in people's eyes. They stare and wonder why she wants to lick everything, why she makes funny noises, why she spins around and around, and why she still wears a bib. Before you came into our lives, Kadence, I would sometimes feel self-conscious and carry an arsenal of tools to calm Bella down and to help her cope. We sometimes have to put her in a wheelchair for family outings to keep her safe. Now, with you walking by our side, I feel a sense of pride and comfort. The red harness that you wear is a poster creating awareness for autism and advocating for Bella.  

People are now more open to approaching us with questions. Meaningful questions such as: How does Kadence help her? What do you need Kadence for? What kind of training did she have to go through? Does your daughter enjoy Kadence? I love how people have the courage to ask.

We are working towards having Kadence go to school with Bella in September so that Bella can continue growing, learning and moving forward as you provide her with confidence, competence, and independence. Thank you, Kadence, for providing my daughter with laughter, companionship, strength, and courage. But most of all, thank you for being a friend to our Bella.


Although a dog guide is valued at $25,000, they are provided free of charge to families who apply for a dog guide (whether it be for the vision and hearing impaired, seizure response, autism assistance, diabetic alert, and other service dogs). The Lions Foundation of Canada is the founder and primary funder of Dog Guides Canada. Lions clubs across Canada contribute 25% of the revenue for the organization, so they depend highly on donations, sponsorship, and fundraisers.

Every year our family has done an annual run to raise awareness for people and families who live with special needs. With the addition of Kadence into our family this year, we decided to do the Purina Walk for Dog Guides on May 24th at Harbourfront Ontario. Please consider making a donation to help provide dog guides to other families HERE.

Click HERE for more information on Autism Assistance Dog Guides.