Sport offers girls with autism a great opportunity to connect with their peers, writes Vicci Wells
In these ever more “connected” times, girls in particular can find the demands of the modern world increasingly complex. Friendships often hinge on attention to feelings and rapid communication – in person or via social media. No matter how much they want to connect, girls with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) can find themselves locked out.
We know there is a crisis in young people’s wellbeing. Too many young people are inactive, stressed, lonely and lacking confidence. The 2017 Girls Active report (Youth Sport Trust in association with Women in Sport) surveyed 21,000 girls; it found that one in five girls lack confidence which, in conjunction with other factors, holds them back from being physically active. These issues are magnified for girls with SEN and disabilities.
The National Autistic Society describes autism as “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people”.
Many teachers and others who work with young people will see girls copying or mimicking the behaviour of those around them. They can seem exhausted due to the constant effort to appear similar to their peers. Often, particularly with very young girls, they are unaware that they are “masking” in the first place.
There is a pronounced gender difference when it comes to people with ASC. Although different studies have produced very differing findings, the ratio of females to males with autism is often reported to be in the region of one to four. This could be due to the challenges around diagnosis, especially in girls due to their abilities to mask their issues with social interaction.
Because diagnosis can be tricky, girls with ASC often find their needs are not identified or understood in schools, and later on in adulthood. The social difficulties, isolation and social exclusion of girls with ASC often fall under the radar, with girls more likely to receive targeted support for learning and behavioural needs than for improving social skills and building friendships.
Developing skills and wellbeing
Sport, physical education and physical activity can be very effective vehicles for creating change and opportunities for young people, as well as promoting tolerance, acceptance and friendship. Sport has the power to teach vital skills and nurture positive character traits. Physical education provided in the right way improves young people’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. It can help them to become more active, more confident and more resilient.
Involvement in sport can be a great way of helping girls with autism to develop the social skills they need to thrive in the school environment and beyond. If girls are denied the opportunities to make connections through sport and physical activity, we will likely see continued growth in mental health issues amongst girls, with more female pupils left feeling isolated. All young people should be given opportunities to form friendships through sport and love themselves for who they are; this is key to developing future healthy and happy generations.
Girls with ASC often need more support, and specific tools, to enable them to have their voices heard and to find their team of people. There are already many organisations doing a great job of encouraging young people to express their feelings and emotions, but we need to continue championing the use of PE and sport to reach more girls. We need to continue exploring, designing and developing innovative ways to support girls with ASC through opportunities presented by PE and sport.
Overcoming barriers to inclusion
There are a number of key barriers to inclusion in PE and sport for girls with autism that teachers and sports professionals should consider, including the following.
Language and communication
Professionals should look at using girls’ names to gain attention when communicating with them. The use of visual prompts and physical demonstrations can be a good way to support instruction for pupils with ASC in sport, as in other areas of school life. Teachers should also consider how they provide feedback on performance and reassurance to pupils.
Many girls with ASC find group/team work in sport to be challenging, so it’s important to evaluate friendships and group pupils accordingly. Specific instruction and practice around turn taking can also help.
Flexibility of thought
Visual prompts can be useful in marking transitions between activities. Rules of the game or activity can also be presented in written and visual formats to aid clarity. We should look at whether issues such as winning and losing act as a significant barrier to girls competing in sport.
People with autism generally experience difficulties with taking in and regulating sensory stimuli that others may find normal. Sensory overload can be a very big issue, so it’s important to consider how pupils with autism will respond to the often very noisy environment of a sports hall, as well as all the smells, bodily contact and rapidly changing visual information they have to deal with.
In order to better meet the needs of girls with ASC, a short sensory circuit at the beginning of the day – involving a range of different activities to engage the body and the senses – can help with sensory regulation and minimising anxiety and unwanted behaviors. Before PE lessons or sports activities, it can be very useful to conduct an environmental sensory audit, in which the sounds, smells and visual and tactile aspects of the activities, and of the PE kit, are assessed.
We should also consider how we use sensory activities to support concentration and attention.
The STEP principle can be very helpful when looking at how to support girls (and boys) with ASC to access a varied menu of PE, school sport and physical activity. This involves considering how we can adapt the activity to better promote the inclusion of girls with autism by looking at: the space being used; the task (or activity) itself; the equipment used; and the people involved. Even relatively simple adjustments, for example reducing or increasing the size of the space used for the activity or changing the number of people on the pitch at any one time, can make a big difference.
Tips to engage girls with ASC in sport
Support routines and familiarity
Pupils with ASC tend to be uneasy about change and usually like to stick to familiar routines. Try to make sure that the same girls get changed next to them each time and ensure girls have a designated place to store their belongings and change into their PE kit. This should be clearly marked by an object of reference, name or picture.
Pupil voice and ownership
Ask (and when necessary assist) pupils with ASC to complete an emotional regulation tool that will inform you about which activities and stimuli they think may cause them to lose control, upset them or make them feel nervous – and which ones will help them to relax and enjoy themselves.
Encourage them to have ownership of activities by asking them what their true feelings are about PE and school sport and what they would like to do. When girls realise their views matter, they are more likely to make positive choices.
Group targets in PE can be challenging because of the increased demands on already heightened sensory systems and, for some young people, the sensory inputs which can result from group tasks and activities can result in a negative reaction, making it difficult for them to take part.
Consider timings for activities
Try to run activities in short blocks, such as 20 to 30 minutes, followed by a break or change of activity. This can give students time to manage any sensory overloads and self-regulate.
Some girls with autism may be more interested in participating in sport when boys are not involved. They may feel less pressure in girl-only environments and this can increase their confidence levels, so consider running some girls-only clubs.
Try new sports
Traditional school sports may not be the most engaging for girls, and particularly those with autism, so get creative and investigate alternative sports such as dodgeball, basketball and archery.
Use language carefully
Some of the words we use about sport and sporting events can be much more welcoming than others. The term “festival”, for example, generally conjures up ideas of fun and inclusion, while the word “competition” could seem scary to many girls with ASC and could act as a barrier to them getting involved. So use language that will encourage girls to take part.
PE and sport can be powerful tools to support girls with ASC to develop physically, emotionally and socially.
It was encouraging to hear the Minister for Sport acknowledge recently that PE, sport and physical activity have an essential role to play in every child’s education. I would take it further to say that physical literacy should be considered on a par with literacy and numeracy. Through sport, young people can learn fundamental life skills and develop character and confidence. These are all things that no young person should miss out on.
About the author
Vicci Wells is National Manager for Targeted Interventions at the children’s charity Youth Sport Trust.