Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sports and athletic participation for special needs students -- and all non-elite students

Recently I reviewed the state of school-based athletic opportunities for special needs students (see also Special Hockey).

The benefits of athletic involvement are clear. They're the same as benefits for neurotypical students, only more so...

  1. Kids who are physically active to their personal bounds are happier, sleep better, and are easier to work with.
  2. We know the best way to boost a middle-aged brain is to exercise (forget crosswords, get up and walk!). There's good reason to think exercise is good for young brains too.
  3. For many of our community team activities, from hockey to cross country running, is the best way to develop social skills and friendships.
  4. For some special needs kids athletic activities can become a major part of their adult life -- indefinitely. (We have special hockey players in their 50s.)
  5. Special needs kids are just as vulnerable to obesity problems as neurotypical kids.

 It's not easy to make this happen though. American schools are notorious for focusing on elite athletics, to the detriment of all non-elites. It's a big problem, but we can chip away at it.

One area we can manage better is the distinction between CI (cognitive impairment) and PI (physical impairment) events. in our school district kids with autism are technically excluded from PI events (in practice "fine motor deficit" can used to fudge the distinction), but CI options can be very limited even for low IQ autistic kids.

The CI/PI distinction is fuzzy. Many CI athletes have some physical disabilities, and most of the PI athletes I know have had at least a learning disorder. I suspect the division was created when Downs Syndrome was more common, and autism less common (or less recognized). We need to develop a more flexible approach.

Special Olympics has done a good job of adapting to changing demographics of special needs, but the schools might be a bit beyond the curve. On a smaller scale Special Hockey has managed to work with a wide range of both cognitive and physical disability -- all on one team!

In the near term I hope we can generate increased demand for activities from special needs parents, and provide more support for volunteer coaches and managers while learning from Special Olympics and Special Hockey. In the longer term I hope to see a kind of reverse- "inclusion" in special needs sports. What we learn from special needs school athletics may work well for all non-elite students.

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