Getting Off the Sidelines

January 28, 2013
Chelsea Budde

By the time students are in middle school, those who want to be athletes are getting comfortable in their sport(s) of choice.  Whether the involvement is meant to be just exposure to the activity or full-on competition, between the school's and community's offerings (outside of rural areas), typically-developing adolescents can generally find something that suits them.

Those with developmental or physical differences have a harder time fitting in.  (Just ask Damian Buchman, founder of Adaptive Scholastic Athletic Program, how difficult it is to find the proper equipment and facility for wheelchair sports!) Some students with autism might really enjoy what Special Olympics or other local adaptive recreation programs (TOPSoccer, for example) have to offer, whereas other athletes prefer to compete with their neurotypical peers.  Either way, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is putting schools on notice about their institution's offerings through a "Dear Colleague" letter published last week by the U.S. Department of Education.

I am delighted that the OCR is clarifying the application of Section 504 of the Rehab Act on this issue.  After all, as the letter points out, "access to, and participation in, extracurricular athletic opportunities provide important health and social benefits to all students, particularly those with disabilities.  These benefits can include socialization, improved teamwork and leadership skills, and fitness."

As a parent, I have been invited to so many school open house opportunities where there is lively presentation and discussion about the extracurricular opportunities afforded to typically-developing students, but when school representatives are asked about programs accessible to students with special needs, there is often a confused response, sometimes as if the possibility weren't even considered.  Our best-case scenario has been that indeed, my son with autism is welcome to be at the given activity, but there will be no support provided by the school.  (See also "The Social Currency of Extracurriculars".)

I have regarded that lack of support as the school flirting with disability harassment, and I believe this letter validates my concern -- and likely that of so many other families.

Of course, there's probably not a school in the nation that doesn't want to support its students with special needs in their participation in extracurricular activities, but where will the resources come from? In Madison, Wis., one high school supported a student with autism by hiring a college student to serve as his guide during track events.  The New York Times article (Aug. 1, 2010) included information about how much more expensive it is to educate a student with a disability versus a typically-developing student, and board members acknowledged the precarious nature of budget funding sources.

So how else can we get our students with autism off the sidelines and into the game?  Here are some ideas (subject to your district's restrictions on background checks or other liability concerns):

  • Partner with an area college or university's Education, Health Care, or Psychology program to recruit students who need volunteer hours.  Try to keep the same student pair (as long as it seems to "click") for the duration of the activity so the student with autism can develop a rapport with his support person.  Consider transportation needs.
  • Develop peer mentors in high school who can work with middle and high school students to offer support during activities.  Use service organizations like Key Club or honors groups, billing the role as a leadership opportunity.
  • Get Applied Behavior Analysis line therapists to support students.
  • Ask the student's Speech-Language Pathologist to review the objective or rules of the game during scheduled interventions (not during the activity itself).  Have the SLP create visual supports that any support person or even the student himself can use as cue cards, of sorts.
  • What about those background checks?  Can you use the one the college or university required for admission into the program?  Will a Medicaid waiver cover that expense?  Is there a parent-teacher organization that can set aside funds as an annual budget item?  What about an athletic booster group?

Teachers and parents are experts at finding creative solutions.  What have you done that's been successful?

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