As a follow up to last week’s post on autism and sports, this week we have an interview with Carrie Hastings, Psy.D, a sports psychologist who specializes in helping individuals on the autism spectrum and their coaches. Dr. Carrie Hastings is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where she was a sprinter and hurdler on the track team. She obtained her master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University, where she has worked as part of the adjunct faculty and as a therapist in the student counseling center. She presents nationally on the topic of bullying, and specializes in sports psychology, neuropsychological testing, and individual therapy. Dr. Hastings provides clinics for coaches and parents as part of Notre Dame’s Play Like a Champion Today program, a national outreach initiative promoting the moral atmosphere of sports and the potential for sports to build character. She conducts research for the organization and has developed extensive resources for athletes with exceptionalities (e.g., ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disorders).
Can you briefly describe the professional work you do to help coaches and parents better understand their autistic athletes?
The work I do is extremely rewarding and is fueled by various perspectives, including that as a former athlete (Notre Dame track), as a psychologist, and as a mother. There is a real shortage of resources for athletes with special needs. It frustrates me to think that a child would be deprived of sport participation simply because a coach does not know how to work effectively with him or her, or communicate properly with parents. My goal is to help foster inclusiveness through the education of coaches and parents.
To that end, I develop resources for the Play Like a Champion Today (PLC) program, a national outreach initiative primarily aimed at enhancing the moral atmosphere of sports. Over the past few years I have focused on outlining coaching strategies and communication tactics to best help athletes with autism thrive. I also conduct workshops for coaches and parents who wish to learn more about these specific techniques in person.
I am at the other end of a confidential e-mail helpline email@example.com. Coaches, parents, and the athletes themselves, write to me with questions, concerns, and scenarios they are working through for which they want additional feedback.
I also work clinically with athletes dealing with symptoms related to autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD, and intellectual disabilities. We discuss ways to enhance their mentality amidst athletics (and other situations), reduce anxiety, establish goals, conceptualize “failures,” and cope with losses and transitions. I will often consult with an individual’s coaches and include parents in the treatment, as well.
How are sports important for autistic development?
Children with autism often have weaker motor skills than those who do not have autism. Motor skills can be further developed through physical activity. Additionally, the opportunity for social integration can assist language development and collaborative abilities. Individuals with autism can feel self-conscious and isolated. Immersion in a supportive environment and being part of a team can build confidence and self-esteem. Ideally, regular praise and encouragement from coaches and teammates gets internalized and enhances one’s own self-evaluation. Subsequently, the athlete develops a proactive attitude and increased motivation towards physical activities and group settings which may formerly have been intimidating. Participation in athletics has been shown to alleviate stress and reduce levels of depression and anxiety, which can accompany other symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Exposure to the inevitable trials and tribulations of sports presents a forum for learning and practicing adaptive coping skills. With proper guidance and good examples, athletes can gain a greater capacity to process and regulate their feelings.
What first sparked your interest in this line of work?
Sport has played such an integral role in my life that I feel propelled to make it as feasible as possible for all who want to play. I have always had a love for sport and a love for children. I was inspired to devote a considerable amount of my attention towards helping those who encounter autism spectrum disorders in the world of athletics upon realizing how little information is accessible to help coaches facilitate the progress and enjoyment of autistic athletes.
I am compelled to make it easier for athletes with ASD to fit in, and champion the idea that they should not be excluded from the sports just because they may require a unique set of tools to work with them. I have had parents tell me that they would love for their child to play a sport, but “the coaches wouldn’t know what to do with [him]…” That is so unfortunate because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Since the launching of my “Ask Doctor Carrie” email helpline (firstname.lastname@example.org), I have heard from people across the country who describe their dilemmas, but also share inspiring stories. I am moved and motivated on a regular basis.
What role can parents play in helping their autistic children succeed athletically?
I recommend that parents be open with the coach about their child’s diagnosis. Even once a coach is trained to work with athletes with ASD, parents know their child best. Explain the nuances of your child to the coach(es) and communicate the learning techniques that have been most effective in other settings. Work together with the coaching staff to bring out the best in your child and help foster enjoyment. As with all athletes, the point is to have fun. In addition, learning to include and collaborate with individuals who have differences is an opportunity for the personal development of all involved.
What difficulties do coaches of autistic children often have?
Coaches lack training and awareness of the hallmarks of ASD. This can be problematic because symptoms can be misinterpreted as disobedience or apathy towards the sport.
Coaches can also struggle with communication approaches. Connecting with an athlete who has ASD requires a specialized approach, which coaches are often unfamiliar with or unaccustomed to. For instance, those with ASD may have an impaired ability to initiate conversation, engage with others, or share thoughts and feelings. This can impede the ASD athlete’s ability to ask questions or request clarification, and a coach may misinterpret an athlete’s silence as understanding.
Another issue is that coaches are often just spread too thin. Even if a coach knows a child may need some additional/one-on-one attention, the coach may be unable to provide it because he or she is continuously occupied meeting other team needs. This dilemma has made me wonder about youth sport organizations providing coaching “aides” as schools do for those who need some extra help in the classroom. There seems to be logic in this option. It needn’t be a licensed professional – just someone with a love for sport, children, and a willingness to obtain some specialized training. The person would be considered one of the coaches and would be on-hand to provide extra guidance and attention for the athlete(s) with ASD.
Is the best solution to these problems to arm coaches with information? What other strategies can they employ to help autistic athletes?
YES. A coach does not necessarily have to have all of the answers, but should at least know where to turn for more information if needed.
Perhaps a comparison to the academic world would help illustrate the importance of coach education in this area… A teacher may have no personal experience with food allergies. Yet, he or she must know how to make accommodations for a student who does. Due to the increase in food allergies among today’s youth, it is common practice to have a separate table or school policy that enhances the safety of the children who attend school with this particular distinction.
The prevalence of ASD has also increased in recent years. Therefore, coaches must be prepared to recognize and accommodate the characteristics associated with ASD. We are not asking them to treat the disorder; but to have a basic understanding of it and some tools to foster the prosperity of these athletes.
There are numerous strategies that can help an athlete with ASD thrive. The nice thing is that these strategies can be applied to all athletes, so an athlete with ASD does not have to be singled out. Some of these include establishing concrete goals, administering frequent praise, building upon one’s strengths, working one-on-one whenever possible, evaluating self-talk, and encouraging positive self-feedback. These and other techniques aimed at problem solving, emotional regulation, and skill-building within sport are outlined in further detail on the PLC website (http://playlikeachampion.nd.edu/resources-for-coaches-of-athletes-with-asd-and-adhd/).
Next week we will continue the interview with Dr. Carrie Hastings as she discusses some of the most common coaching mistakes, strategies for helping autistic children participate in and enjoy sports, and ways parents can screen activities to find the most appropriate fit for their children.