Published August 2019

As diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder (A.S.D. or ASD) have risen in reason years (one out of sixty-eighty children received a diagnosis in 2013 and one out of forty-two boys), coaches should make efforts to incorporate all student-athletes in their sports programs (Braun & Braun, 2015, p. 31). Children diagnosed with A.S.D. may not have extensive experience in athletics because of their impairment in developing peer relationships and restriction on social play for their developmental level (Yanardağ, Yilmaz, & Aras, 2010, p. 225).

The diagnostic criteria of A.S.D. are persistent deficits in communication and social interaction and repetitive and restrictive patterns of behaviour (Duquette, Carbonneau, Roult, & Crevier, 2016, p. 41). As it is a spectrum disorder, every individual has specific and unique symptoms (Ohrberg, 2013, p. 53).

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Physical Activity

Sport is one of the daily activities that require motor skills, focus and social interaction so youth diagnosed with A.S.D. participate less than their peers and this involvement declines with age (Ohrberg, 2013, p. 53). Participation in physical activity for youth with A.S.D. is less than those with intellectual disabilities (Lobenius-Palmér, Sjöqvist, Hurtig-Wennlöf, & Lundqvist, 2018, p. 12). Physical activity and sedentary habits are important to address because they continue into adulthood (Lobenius-Palmér, Sjöqvist, Hurtig-Wennlöf, & Lundqvist, 2018, p. 13).

Mean physical activity time more males and females with A.S.D. falls significantly short of age-group peers and few meet daily recommendations for physical activity (Lobenius-Palmér, Sjöqvist, Hurtig-Wennlöf, & Lundqvist, 2018, p. 8). Even at one end of the spectrum, physical activity is greatly reduced and eighty-percent report little involvement in intense physical activity. Strength, balance, flexibility, speed and cardiovascular endurance of youth with Asperger syndrome is worse than other teenagers (Borremans, Rintala, & McCubbin, 2010, p. 313).

Physical activity as part of an extra-curricular team can provide children with A.S.D. with better fitness and improved cognitive, motor and social functioning. There is ample evidence that these youth can enjoy sport and succeed (Rosso, 2016, p. 2530). Physical activity improves physical, cognitive and behavioural difficulties, including reductions in stereotypical behaviours and increased concentration (Milanese, McGrath, & Crozier, 2019, p. 49). It also provides a sense of normalcy and permits youth with A.S.D. to interact with their peers (Ohrberg, 2013, p. 53).

Given the prevalence of the diagnosis and the benefits of physical activity, coaches should consider making youth with A.S.D. part of their programs. Those affected by A.S.D. can have a range of symptoms so it is certainly possible for coaches to create a role so the players can succeed.

Accommodations and Modifications

This is not to advocate that coaches should completely change their approach or philosophy. Too often when working with an exceptional student athletes, we look for reasons why it cannot work rather than seeking a way to make it work.

Universal Design for Learning

When working with exceptional student-athletes, coaches worry too much the negative side – what the athlete cannot do. On the basketball court, coaches may fret that players with A.S.D. cannot remember detailed plays or interact effectively with teammates. On the other hand, these same players may display characteristics that enable them to succeed in sports, such as intensive interests or adherence to routines or rituals (Yanardağ, Yilmaz, & Aras, 2010, p. 215). This can facilitate practice of fine motor skills, such as shooting, or playing defense against a tough opponent.

Coaches stereotype these athletes and look for confirmation that they are not up to the challenge or tightly controlling how the player performs on the court (Stabeno, 2004, p. 53). The key to letting these athletes succeed is to do the opposite and look for areas where they can succeed. Flexibility and creativity are imperative when employing a Universal Design for Learning (U.D.L.) approach to coaching.

For coaches, U.D.L. means looking for places where athletes can succeed. There are multiple ways to engage youth on a basketball team, ranging from player to team manager or statistician. No coach would expect every player to be equally good at all facets of the game: there are shooters, defenders and ballhandlers. Provide the same opportunities to contribute in a range of actions for players on the autism spectrum. Also, everyone learns differently so represent information in a variety of formats.

The many micro-adaptations in U.D.L. is a major challenge to coaching exceptional student-athletes (Rosso, 2016, p. 2529). In a games-based environment, this may involve making teams of three instead of four or five so there are fewer decisions. When practicing a skill such as shooting, consider smaller groups of two or three players at side hoops instead of a large group congregated at one of the main baskets. With a twenty-four second shot clock, coaches should consider simplifying actions for all players any way.

Adaptive Physical Education

Adaptive Physical Education (A.P.E.) is a balancing act between maintaining the integrity of the activity and maximizing the potential of the individuals (Milanese, McGrath, & Crozier, 2019, p. 52). When coaches focus on the ability of players and what they can accomplish, it’s possible to find a role for nearly every player.

Since A.S.D. is represented so distinctly from person to person, Accommodations for A.P.E. are likewise on a spectrum. It may not be necessary to modify every activity (Houston-Wilson, 2016, p. 212). It’s impractical to modify every team activity for every team number so get to know the team members to get a sense of how they are doing.

“Ability First” is an important tenant of A.P.E. that can establish a long-lasting relationship between a coach and a student-athlete and promote physical activity (Borremans, Rintala, & McCubbin, 2010, p. 318). If a player has a particular strength, such as tenacity on defense or resolve on the glass, put them in the game so they can flourish doing what they do best.

Don’t underestimate the importance of trying hard when kids play sports. Parents, coaches and adults overestimate their influence in the fun of a sporting activity but kids of all ages want to try hard on a team with a positive environment and encouraging coaching (Visek, Mannix, Chandran, Cleary, McConnell, & DiPietro, 2018, p. 852). Youth with A.S.D. enjoy the opportunity in Adaptive P.H.E. to play sports and try hard (Blagrave, 2017, p. 22). Just play in practice so everyone can compete.

Caring Adults

Participants spoke highly about the teachers and coaches who organized the programs and attested to the large impact of these caring adults on their lives (Blagrave, 2017, p. 24). Some of the characteristics of the caring adults who work best with youth with A.S.D. are the same that John Wooden ascribed to an effective teacher: getting to know each student-athlete, making learning engaging and treating everyone with respect (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, p. 109). Most of all, coaching exceptional-student athletes requires that coaches exercise their usual best practices but with determination.

Get to know the athletes individually to motivate and engage all players (Rosso, 2016, p. 2530). Speaking to players at lunch or walking and talking with a student in the halls can build a rapport. Open communication establishes trust with family members. It can be stressful for the parents of the child with A.S.D. so knowing that the coach is on the same page is a relief (Ohrberg, 2013, p. 55). Touch base with parents throughout the year, even if it is just to thank them for coming out to a game or practice.

Give Encouragement: Kalin Bennett, the first basketball player diagnosed to receive a Division I scholarship at Kent State, describes the impact that caring adults had on his situation. A therapist who stated that he would never walk shattered his confidence. When he began playing basketball and musical instruments, Bennett found teachers and coaches who would raise his self-esteem and inspire him. His mother, who always believed and encouraged him, termed “can’t” a word that they would never use in their home (Chuck, 2018).

Mental Training

The sports psychology aspect of coaching student-athletes diagnosed with A.S.D. is paramount.


Provide time to orient the athlete to the environment, including the noise when activity is underway (Yanardağ, Yilmaz, & Aras, 2010, p. 222). Perhaps encourage the athlete to arrive early to the gym to get more shots up or even take a few moments to examine the gym before going to the dressing room in order to get anticipate how the game environment will unfold.

A mental training routine, such as breathing, visualization or positive self-talk can reduce sports-related anxiety. Athletes need to monitor their own reactions to the situation and use coping skills to achieve the optimal reaction (Braun & Braun, 2015, p. 38). Empower athletes to identify what triggers their anxiety (noise, proximity with others, temperature, games) so they can initiate their own strategies. An athlete who becomes over-stimulated during game could use deep breathing to get back on track.

A pre-practice routine to develop individual skills may help acclimatize the player to the gym environment while everyone is arriving and preparing themselves. A routine with set starting and ending points while others are working on individual skills enables the athlete to work on their own (Houston-Wilson, 2016, p. 2017). Personalized skill work is also part of N.B.A. practices, as players get their “vitamins” before or after practices.


Difficulties in fine motor control and socialization may reduce motivation for youth diagnosed with A.S.D. (Rosso, 2016, p. 2527). Reinforcing success and encouraging persistence in comments can raise motivation (Rosso, 2016, p. 2527). Consider showing short video clips of the athlete doing well so they can see themselves in a positive light.

Team generated rules and routine should be simple and fair are easy to follow (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2012). Give the players some choice in how to warm-up for games or practices don’t overcomplicate matters. If players are put in a position to succeed, they will be engaged in the activity.


Use words wisely when coaching those with A.S.D. Verbal communication is a difficulty reported by many coaches (Rosso, 2016, p. 2529) and children with A.S.D. may have difficulty accepting feedback (Braun & Braun, 2015, p. 31).

Concise feedback during the performance of the skill and simple verbal or visual prompts can assist the athlete ( Yanardağ, Yilmaz, & Aras, 2010, p. 219). For those that are easily distracted – and for all players since coaches often feel tempted to talk too much – utilize succinct explanations. Keep terms consistent and reduce jargon; even interchanging the name of an action like pick/screen can be confusing.

Use a structure when communicating in timeouts, such as precise instructions and ensuring that the student-athlete is listening carefully (Duquette, Carbonneau, Roult, & Crevier, 2016, p. 47). It may be necessary to occasionally focus the student’s attention during a timeout. Remember to make eye contact with each player to check for understanding throughout the timeout (Stabeno, 2004, p. 76).

Be very specific about what needs to be accomplished in the drill or the play (Braun & Braun, 2015, p. 37). When giving a quick instruction to a substitute entering the game, a coach could ask the athlete to repeat the instruction in order to check for understanding (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2012). Rather than one long dialog to impart all of the information at once, pull players out of a drill as needed for precise exchanges. Calling a player over during a free throw or stoppage is an excellent opportunity to give personalized and direct information.

Team Building

Barriers in sport are largely linked to concerns about the social environment (Duquette, Carbonneau, Roult, & Crevier, 2016, p. 44). Student-athletes with A.S.D. have flourished when their teammates welcomed them.

Peers have a major influence on the enjoyment of youth with A.S.D. and encouraging them to continue in sport (Blagrave, 2017, p. 25). Educate peers to make participation easier and prevent negative reactions (Duquette, Carbonneau, Roult, & Crevier, 2016, p. 46). It’s not about focusing on A.S.D. – players will want to choose how they are presented to their teammates – but accepting people of all backgrounds.

Coaches should not make a big deal of an A.S.D. diagnosis because it can bring unwelcome attention and cause the group to treat the student differently (Bennett, Dworet, & Weber, 2008, p. 171). Limiting the extent to which they can participate – by forcing them to play with younger age groups or telling the team that they are different – erodes confidence and make them quit sports (Wertheim, 2016). Privately, take about a realistic role and be honest about how the season will proceed. Also discuss what degree they would like to share their diagnosis with team members.

Involve the Entire Staff: Coaches must create a positive culture and monitor the environment constantly (Rosso, 2016, p. 2530). Although the Michigan State Men’s Basketball Team was supportive of Anthony Ianni’s A.S.D. diagnosis, a moment when the back-up center did not understand Draymond Green’s sarcasm nearly escalated into a conflict. Demonstrating why all of the caring adults in a program need to monitor these interactions, it was the strength coach, Mike Vorkapich, who calmed things down and explained to Green why Ianni had trouble with the tone of voice in a joke (Layberger, 2019).

When Tom Izzo first began working with Ianni, he told him that he would not coach him any differently than any other Spartan because of his diagnosis. Ianni’s family supported his move from Division II Grade Valley State to Michigan State because of the family atmosphere fostered by the coaching staff. Izzo also focused on what Ianni could do co, especially his work ethic in practice, and awarded him a scholarship for his final season (Layberger, 2019).


Mike Krzyzewski said that “players learn best from the game.” Basketball is a complicated game with many actions occurring at once.

Games-Based Practices

It can be overwhelming for athletes, coaches and spectators (Stabeno, 2004, p. 155). But you can also break it down into individual actions and reads as part of dynamic 1-vs-1 drills or small-sided games. Once the behaviour is learned in one context, it can be transferred other contexts (Bennett, Dworet, & Weber, 2008, p. 171). Some student-athletes with A.S.D. do better when the practice plan is posted so they can see what is coming next.

Understanding by Design

Teach the game in a whole-part-whole set-up so that the athlete can see the context of the activity and then gain repetitions performing the skill (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2012). Keep plays simple and employ basic decision trees (shoot it if open or make the extra pass, curl the pin down if they trail it, drift if a teammate drives baseline) for those who may be unfocused or forgetful (Braun & Braun, 2015, p. 37).

Differentiated Instruction

Presenting information visually can help the player so consider distributing playbooks or showing video footage on a tablet of the athlete or a role model performing the skill correctly. When showing film or using visual feedback, parallel talk may help the player focus. Explain what is happening how this serves the purpose on the court (Houston-Wilson, 2016, p. 207). When teaching a new skill, coach the athletes on how it should feel to perform the skill (such as dropping their hips when sliding or sealing with three points of contact inside) (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2012).

Modifying equipment, for example taping a line on the floor to instruct the Pack-Line spacing or placing vinyl spots to demonstrate offensive spacing, combine with short verbal instructions to become an effective coaching strategy (Milanese, McGrath, & Crozier, 2019, p. 51). Combining multiple methods of communication – words and images, statistics and film – ensures that the message gets through.


Jason McElwain was a student-manager with A.S.D. for his high school team. Although he never played in games, he was obsessed with basketball. When he had a chance to enter his first game as a senior, McElwain scored twenty points and made news headlines. He continued his involvement with the game, becoming a high school assistant and later a head coach. The players who he coaches respond positively to his passion and knowledge for the game (Merrill, 2016).

McElwain’s coach Jim Johnson found a role for him on the team and later reached out to find a role for him as a coach. It would have been easy to exclude McElwain but influence that he has had was worth the effort. You never know where it will lead when you open the door a crack. As a teacher or coach, make sports accessible to as many people as possible.

Works Cited

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