Posts Tagged ‘Special Olympics’

Sports for Children with Autism

July 23, 2009

There was a good article in the Washington Post yesterday about a boy with autism who swims on a local swim team.  Kids with autism can benefit a lot from playing sports, as can their neurotypical peers from having them on the teams.  Swimming is one of the better sports for kids with autism because it is both individual, without a lot of complex requirements, yet still social in that kids are still part of a team.

Participating in sports can help kids with autism and other disabilities in many ways.  Sports give kids with disabilities confidence, improve socialization, get more oxygen to the brain, improve coordination, help them stay in shape, help them sleep better, improve cognitive function by improving proprioception (the body’s sense of where it is in space), and reduce inappropriate behaviors.  Improvements in fine and gross motor skills often go hand in hand with improvements in academic and cognitive function.  Certain exercises can relax kids and even help align both hemispheres of the brain.  And of course, sports are also a lot of fun.

Kids with autism often like swimming, trampoline, and swinging.  This gives us clues on what kind of sensory input they need.  What is the best sport for children with autism?  I tried to answer the question a couple of years ago at http://www.coachmike.net/autism-faq.php#12.  I think the real answer is, “Whatever they like best.”  In order to find out whatever they like best, we need to get rid of our preconceived notions and expose them to as many athletic opportunities as possible.  I learned this after coaching a child in soccer a few years ago who ultimately ended up playing hockey.  I never would have thought hockey would be a great sport for kids with autism because of the need to skate and handle a stick simultaneously, but it turns out that it can be great, and it just goes to show that we shouldn’t put limitations on anyone.

Sports can be more effective for kids with disabilities when they are mixed in with academics and social skills.  You can do a half hour of sports followed by a half hour of schoolwork, followed by a half hour of social skills.  Each area helps the child generalize and build on the previous one. Sometimes people make the mistake, though well intentioned, of segregating each activity to the point where each one is facilitated by different specialists who, worst-case scenario, don’t coordinate and communicate with each other.  In any case, each activity should transition and relate to the others, and ideally, you can do some academic work while moving at the same time.  One example is to play catch or jump on a trampoline while answering questions.  This helps with sensory integration.  Yoga is also great for balance and relaxation, and deep breathing and meditation exercises can help improve the attention spans of children and reduce unwanted behaviors at the same time.

For a high functioning child, you can have him or her play in a league with typical peers, preferably a couple of years younger than the child who has autism.  The child has a “shadow” who helps integrate him or her with the other children athletically and socially.  I’ve facilitated in this way, and also coached Special Olympics soccer, and both can be great depending on the situation.  See www.soccerideas.net for ideas on drills.  It’s the same concept as in school – sometimes it’s best for kids to be mainstreamed into the typical school environment, and other times it’s best for them to be in a self-contained (special education) classroom, and often the best of both worlds is a combination of both, depending on the situation.

Exercises are great, but it’s best to do ones that are meaningful in the context of sports, so that children can eventually be part of a team, or at least play in impromptu games after school, or even use imagination to make up their own games.  It’s how kids learn best – not just sitting at a desk doing work, but getting along with others, being spontaneous, thinking on the fly.

A lot of people are familiar with the amazing story of Jason McElwain, an autistic teenager who scored 6 three-point baskets for his high school team a few years ago.  This type of success doesn’t happen a lot, but it would never happen if too many limitations are put on children who have autism and other disabilities who want to play sports.

I’d like to add one other thing.  While parents shouldn’t push their kids too hard into sports, they should expose them to sports and in some cases kids may need a nudge.  You wouldn’t tell your child who says, “I don’t want to do math” that it’s ok to avoid homework just because he or she doesn’t want to do it.  Math is necessary and good for kids.  Sports may be good for them as well, so don’t be so quick to say, “He doesn’t want to do it.”  In any case, it’s better to try something new that to do the same things over and over.  Sometimes I think parents are more autistic than the kids themselves – not willing to try anything new, just doing the same old x number of hours of therapy sitting at a desk in a vacuum.  And playing sports is certainly better than sitting inside and watching TV.

Ok, that reminds me, I have one other thing to add.  Today, a lot of kids play video games, and one video game that can be beneficial is the Nintendo Wii, which has simulated sports that can create an interest in real sports (tennis, bowling, baseball), as well as fitness (yoga, exercises, and running).

For people in the Bethesda/Montgomery County, MD/Washington, DC areas, there are several sports-related opportunities for children with autism.

  • Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN, www.keenusa.org) is a free, volunteer-run sports program for kids with disabilities.  There is a waiting list that was up to a year long the last time I checked, but they don’t turn anyone away unless they are over 21.  KEEN has a general sports program, a swim program, a music program, and a Teen Club for higher functioning children to do outings.  KEEN has chapters in Bethesda, Washington, DC, and several more across the country, and even a few in England, where KEEN began.
  • Sports Plus, based in Germantown, MD, has sports leagues for kids with high functioning autism (www.playsportsplus.org).
  • Fitness for Health in Rockville has some excellent equipment and specializes in one on one training sessions.  See http://www.fitnessforhealth.org/.
  • Special Olympics provides sports for not only children but also adults with disabilities: http://www.somdmontgomery.org/.  The Special Olympics national website is http://www.specialolympics.org/.
  • There are a few youth hockey programs in the area such as the Montgomery Cheetahs (www.montgomerycheetahs.org).

Elsewhere, check with your local schools and governments, or search the web to see what is out there.

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President Obama Should Know Better

March 20, 2009

President Obama’s gaffe last night on the Tonight Show was unfortunately all too reminiscent of the federal government’s attitude toward people with disabilities.

First of all, when Obama said of his bowling, “It was like the Special Olympics or something,” it was obviously very insulting to people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities.  It’s very possible that Obama talks this way among his peers.  To not understand how offensive that statement is shows a glaring unawareness.  I’m sure there are a lot of Special Olympians who could beat Obama in bowling.

If Obama had made a racist or religious joke, the media would have been all over it.  But a joke against people with special needs?   That’s acceptable. 

I volunteered for two years as a soccer coach for the Special Olympics in Maryland, and I went to a Special Olympics event in California last year (see the two photos I took).  I started volunteering for sports programs for kids with disabilities 10 years ago, and I currently work with kids with autism (www.coachmike.net), so I know a little bit about this subject. 

Special Olympics, Long Beach, California, summer 2008

Special Olympics, Long Beach, California, summer 2008. Photo by Mike Frandsen

 

(Obama sits up there, trying to be smooth and cool.  In fact, let’s face it.  The reason that Obama got elected really isn’t any different than why every U.S. president has gotten elected in the last 40 years.  He was a better speaker than his opponents and people vote mainly on image.  Look it up – of the past 10 presidential elections, it is ALWAYS the candidate who has a better image – the one who is more friendly, possesses more charisma, and is a better public speaker.  The only possible exception was in 2000 when you could argue that Gore had a better persona than Bush [it was about even because while Gore was a much better speaker, he was more stiff and Bush was much more folksy], but many say Gore actually did win that election and he did get half a million more votes anyway. 

It’s why Obama beat Hillary – he was “cooler.”  Experience didn’t matter – funny – it always matters when I apply for a job but it doesn’t for the presidency.  I’m not saying people don’t vote for who they think will be the better president, I’m just saying that people vote for candidates who they like the most based on their personality and charisma.)

I personally believe that Obama is one of those people who is somewhat fake and unauthentic because he constantly says things and does things that are calculated to improve his image.  Not that you would expect anything other than that from a politician.

I’m not anti-Obama – I agree with Obama and the Democrats on most issues – for example, people should have a fair chance at health care – the U.S. policy on that is shameful (in fact, if I ever run for office you can look back at this statement:  “I am NOT proud of my country because of our health care situation.”  And I will never retract that statement).  And we need a clean environment to reduce the incidence of autism, breast cancer, and other disorders and diseases.

But back to the point.

There is a startling unawareness in the federal government with respect to hiring people with disabilities.  It starts at the top with the President, filters down to the cabinet members, down to the directors of the federal agencies, and down to the management and hiring personnel.  I’m not saying Obama is worse than other presidents in giving a fair chance to people with disabilities, but I’m not sure he’s any better.  See my report at http://www.coachmike.net/special_report.php.  I concluded that “The federal government’s Schedule A program intended to facilitate the hiring of people with disabilities is severely underutilized, especially in hiring people with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities.”  

Schedule A is a hiring authority set up by the government to help level the playing field and make it easier to hire people with disabilities, whether they be cognitive/intellectual (the government still uses the outdated “mental retardation” terminology), psychiatric, or physical.  (There still isn’t a developmental category to cover autism). 

The Office of Personnel Management created the Schedule A program more than 20 years ago to allow for greater recruitment and hiring of individuals with disabilities.  It allows federal agencies to bypass the competitive process to provide disabled

Special Olympics, Long Beach, California, summer 2008

Special Olympics, Long Beach, California, summer 2008.

 individuals a unique opportunity to demonstrate their ability to successfully perform the essential duties of a position with or without reasonable accommodation.  OPM states that the Schedule A certification is used to “appoint persons who are certified that they are at a severe disadvantage in obtaining employment…Certification also ensures that they are capable of functioning in the position for which they will be appointed, and that any residual disabilities are not job-related.”

In almost all cases in which the hiring authority was used, hires of people with physical disabilities outnumbered those with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities by a very wide margin.

People with disabilities have a 70% unemployment rate.  This figure only includes people who are willing and able to work and it’s still 70%. 

The only problem is that Schedule A isn’t mandatory, so it’s woefully underused except by a few agencies.  Take the National Institutes of Health as an example.  You would think this organization would be better, not worse, than other agencies at hiring people with disabilities through the Schedule A hiring authority.  In fact, I believe that the facts show that NIH discriminates against people with disabilities in their hiring process.  

From 1998 to 2008, NIH, with nearly 18,000 full-time employees, hired just four people with cognitive disabilities and one with a psychiatric disability through the Schedule A program.  I learned this information through Freedom of Information Act requests.

I first notified NIH in 2004 that they had been negligent in hiring Schedule A employees with disabilities.  I also notified them in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.  Their response was almost always no response.  Each year I contacted the NIH Director, Equal Employment Office, Human Resource Officials, Selective Placement Coordinator, Institute Directors, and Ombudsman multiple times.  I have 200 pages of documents to prove it.  When I brought the subject up, several times speaking at the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, parents applauded but scientists and NIH leaders laughed at me. 

To this day, NIH refuses to comment on the report, and refuses to take any action to improve the situation.  After eight years at NIH (the last five as an employee), I threatened to quit in December 2006 if NIH did nothing to improve the situation.  They did nothing, I quit, and two years later NIH still hasn’t taken any action.

(This is a little off topic, but now I need a federal job again because the kidney transplant I will need soon will cost $180,000 including medications for the first year, and my insurance currently only covers 80% of it whereas the federal insurance covers 100% – see www.mikeneedsakidney.com.  But NIH is treating me like a private company would treat a whistleblower.  Instead of trying to improve the situation that I brought attention to, they are ignoring it, and holding the fact that I brought it to their attention against me.).

When I contacted Congressman Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD) office, they promised to respond.  They ignored the issue for more than a year and then stonewalled until they thought I went away. 

You may say that it costs too much to include people with disabilities in the workforce.  But in fact, it costs too much not to do it.  You can get productivity at a relatively low price by hiring people with disabilities, and prevent them from relying on government programs like Social Security disability when possible.  (Same with health care – a little bit of preventative care goes a long way to save money in the long run).

The success or failure of any organization starts at the top.  The President’s remarks were dismissive of the abilities of people with special needs.  There is an attitude throughout the government that people with disabilities are to be ignored.  Taking action would be to admit that there is a problem, and agencies such as NIH are more concerned with their image than doing the right thing, so they would never admit that they have been deficient in hiring people with disabilities through the Schedule A hiring authority.  

The media doesn’t care either.  As I write this at 2:30 p.m., I just saw an interview on MSNBC with Chuck Todd about Obama’s appearance last night on the Tonight Show.  Todd said the show went great for Obama.  Not once in this ridiculously long interview did they bring up the President’s remarks about the Special Olympics.  The interview went so long that it delayed the Presidential Press Secretary’s press conference.  If Hillary had made those remarks, you can bet that MSNBC would be all over it. 

As for NIH, if they can’t handle hiring people with disabilities through the Schedule A program, and they were made aware of this problem five years ago, I’m sorry to say but you have to question whether they can handle other important initiatives such as stem cell research.  Don’t get me wrong – I think stem cell research is critically important to save lives and improve the quality of lives, and as much research should be done as soon as possible.  However, it would be a mistake to just throw a ton of money at the problem like the government did for the banks just because they are supposedly smarter than us. 

If there are competing organizations that can get the job done, they should be considered as well.  Either way, there should be a stringent process that funding goes to the programs that are most deserving and will be held accountable for what they do.  This process should be stringent but also expedited so that bureaucratic red tape doesn’t delay research.  You can argue that stem cell research is more important than ensuring that people with disabilities get a fair chance to contribute to the missions of government agencies.  I would say they are equally important – but they are not mutually exclusive.  The government should do both. 

This blog entry has been a little scattered, but I thought it was important to address the subject quickly.   In summary:

1.  The NIH and other federal agencies must do a better job of hiring people with disabilities using the Schedule A hiring authority.  The only way to do this is to make it or a similar program mandatory because otherwise, the government will discriminate.  

2.  President Obama (“Teflon Barry”) should set an example by hiring people with disabilities to work in the White House.  He should also give a better apology.  He should also ensure that the federal government is held accountable for giving people with disabilities a fair chance, otherwise, hiring officials and management will do the same things they have always done about this situation:  ignore it or laugh about it. 

Please see my websites:  www.coachmike.net and www.mikeneedsakidney.com.  

Finally – I reviewed this post and was going to tone it down because I thought it might be a bit harsh, but I actually decided to add to it and make it stronger.  I think Obama is a good person and a good president – we shouldn’t be afraid to criticize him, though, when he deserves it.  I’m a big Redskins fan but I’ve criticized them mercilessly for the last 15 years.  As for this and other blog posts, I try to be honest and tell it like it is.  Hopefully you appreciate it but if not, it is what it is.