Sports and Autism: More than one Expense
My Google Chat pal Mark Hyman provided me with a copy of his new book, The Most Expensive Game in Town. An entirely readable analysis with a respectable amount of first-hand accounts, Mark’s book is a commentary on the business of youth sports. While many consider team sports the gateway to skills that will last a lifetime, there may be a good deal of mythology behind such a notion as the current environment suggests.
Parents tend to be a willing population. For many, the idea that a program or coach will provide an advantage is difficult to resist. Place that desire behind the backdrop of a sports-obsessed American culture, and the business ventures are easily explained. Mark focuses on several parents who have payed upwards of $10k for their children to be part of sports travel leagues that seem to have an unending season. More financial investment commonly includes more emotional investment. The more money a league or technique coach, the better the outcome for a young athlete’s skills, experience, and future.
Of course, with the parents envisioning college scholarships for sporting greatness, there are those who view sports as a way for their children to become more physically active, gain opportunities for socialization, and, quite possibly, have fun. I argue that sports are most often a poor choice to accomplish any of these goals, particularly for young people with autism.
For a short time, I thought that most parents made the distinction between fitness/active play and sports. I learned of my mistake over time, as parents attending my seminars and conference presentations began thanking me for “not making them feel guilty about their kids not playing sports.” I began adding pictures of a pyramid and a tree to my Powerpoints with the statement: “Sports are not the top of the pyramid, they are a branch on a tree” to illustrate this important concept.
But parents have over a decade of being sold the idea that team sports are THE epitome of physical activity. That moving for the sake of moving serves little purpose other than being potentially dangerous (Monkey bars are an invitation to paralysis or head injuries, of course), is perhaps the greatest disservice to child development in the history of the United States. Considering the things that active play provides: physical health and development, problem solving skills, greater self-regulation, increased cognitive functioning, the promotion of social skills, the systematic cutting of Physical and Adapted Physical Education would not be inappropriately labeled “The Compromise of America’s Future as a World Power.” I am not the first professional to state this and I will be surprised and afraid if I am the last.
The desire for one’s child to experience a sense of belonging and success is a highlighted theme in the world of Autism. If Steven could just learn to play baseball, he would be fit, active, and accepted. So goes the misconception. League sports predominate because they are, for the time being, damn good business models. Nobody really questions motives when the team, or most of it, is all excited for the first game of the season. That their kid couldn’t have less interest in participating makes many parents feel guilty. Because nobody told them, truthfully, that pretty much the whole racket sucks and that in 3 or 4 years most of these kids will not be more physically fit or engaged in an active lifestyle than their non-sports-playing peers.
The perception is often marketed as the reality. When someone says “Mind/Body” you probably think of a yoga practitioner sitting in lotus position on a teal or perhaps marigold mat, smiling peacefully. Dress a kid up in a baseball uniform and they are a happy, eager all-star learning teamwork and good sportsmanship. Many of my Autism Fitness athletes wouldn’t tolerate wearing a ball cap for over 30 seconds, or would wander to the next field because there’s a really irresistible deflated balloon caught in the grass. Are they any less deserving of the opportunity to succeed and engage in physical activity?
My central complaint with youth sports is that they are exclusive. That and there is little to no creativity. Those two and they are so specified that a kid (or adult for that matter) could play four sports and still not have a good movement foundation (push, pull, squat, etc.). There is no apparent glory in climbing up a big rock and then using a honed agility to hop down the side. Nor do you need $120 cleats to do it. Still, a profoundly solid argument could be made that this activity provides more innate benefit than starting for the most accomplished 9-year-old travel soccer team.
For the autism population, the sports-centric environment precludes access to more movement and play-based activities. Just getting most kids on the spectrum to participate can be a lengthy process, but quite worth a lifetime of fitness. Building a foundation of movement activities, fun (meaning one seeks out movement activities), and gradual skill development can ensure good things…the exact opposite of what’s going on right now.