Posts Tagged ‘sports’

Play date activities for children with autism spectrum disorders

January 28, 2011

Participating in play dates can help children with autism gain invaluable social skills.  The best way for children on the autism spectrum to learn how to manage their emotions and make friends is to practice those skills over and over with their peers.

A sample list of play date activities designed to improve social-emotional, play, cognitive, and motor skills is below.  The description of ideas is just a guide.  The list of potential games, sports, and other activities is endless.  The list below includes activities that in some cases require a minimum level of education and communication.

Activities should be customized to the interests and needs of students.  A list of ten or so major activities can be given to kids who should have some leeway to take turns choosing activities.  In a two-hour play date, usually about six activities can be accomplished.

To read the rest of my article on, click here.



Teaching kids with autism is not only rewarding, but also tons of fun

September 10, 2010

Helping children with autism learn social skills is fun for everybody involved.

I just wrote an column on about how people often react to what I do for a living with a strange mixture of pity and admiration. They patronize me by telling me what I do is great, but they don’t understand that it’s more than that — it’s simply a lot of fun.

I work with kids with autism, to improve their skills in academics, social skills, and sports.  As I point out in the article, it’s not without challenges.  I’ve been hit, scratched, and had my shirt grabbed so hard it tore in half.  But the great moments outweigh all that, and I’ve got enough memories to last a lifetime, and at least enough for a book.

The main point of the article is that it’s a lot more than rewarding to work with these kids.  It’s a huge amount of fun and I look forward to every session.

How could you not like teaching kids how to read, do math, make friends, play sports, and have fun?  How could you not love jumping on the trampoline, taking them swimming, or taking them sledding?  How could you not like running a play date for kids whose social skills don’t come naturally?

If I seem a little bitter in the article, it’s because there are a lot of women out there who seem to value someone who works in a boring but successful career over someone who would be a great father (not to mention a great husband).  But not everyone has their values upside down.

In “Authentic Happiness,” Martin Seligman writes that when we do things that are both kind and fun, when actions are meaningful, those acts result in true happiness.

See article on sports for children with autism in new Autism Spectrum Quarterly magazine

August 29, 2010

Jason McElwain, who has autism, scored 20 points in four minutes in a high school basketball game in 2006. AP Photo/Eric Sucar.

One of my articles has been published in the new issue of Autism Spectrum Quarterly magazine.  It’s about sports and exercise for children with autism, and how sports can help kids improve their social and cognitive skills.

A high functioning child with autism may be able to play in a typical league with help from a “shadow,” or a child can participate in organizations like Special Olympics or Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN).  Even playing catch during play dates can be a start.

Sports can be a great way to help kids with autism make friends, improve communication, and above all, have fun.

Here’s a sample of the article:

Four years ago, Jason McElwain, a teenager with autism, became an overnight sensation by scoring 20 points in four minutes of action in a high school basketball game. . . . Regardless of whether children with autism are high functioning like McElwain, or are less advanced cognitively, playing sports can have profound effects on several aspects of their lives. For example, sports can help kids with autism gain confidence, improve social skills, and develop better coordination. Improvements in balance and motor planning skills often go hand in hand with progress in cognitive function, academic achievement, and organizational skills.

Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN) holds annual sports festival for D.C. area kids with disabilities

June 8, 2010

Kids Enjoy Exercise Now held its 9th annual sports festival Sunday at Hadley Park in Potomac, Maryland. The sports festival is an annual celebration in which KEEN families participate in sports and games with their children and siblings, along with volunteer coaches.

KEEN is a national, non-profit volunteer organization that gives children and young adults with disabilities a chance play sports and recreational activities in a non-competitive, welcoming atmosphere. KEEN athletes include children with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism.

For the rest of my article on, click here.

Sports and exercise for children with autism can improve social and cognitive skills

April 13, 2010

Four years ago, autistic teenager Jason McElwain became an overnight sensation by scoring 20 points in four minutes of action in a high school basketball game.

While many children with autism may never reach similar athletic heights, McElwain and others like him give children and parents hope. Perhaps the most significant part of the story was the acceptance that “J-Mac” received from his peers.

Whether children who have autism are high functioning like McElwain or are less advanced, playing sports can improve several aspects of their lives.

See the rest of my article on

A Storm of controversy around Hannah

February 25, 2010

A couple of years ago at 2008/12/05/most-beautiful-tv-news-women-2008/, I wrote this about Hannah Storm:

“She is very sharp.  She’s gotten better in sports knowledge and looks as she’s gotten older.  I didn’t expect to include her but now I can’t keep her out.  Her work is absolutely stellar, way better than it was years ago.”

Hannah Storm

As for Kornheiser’s recent comments about Storm being too old to wear what she wears, I think she looks amazing even though I usually  favor women who are a few pounds overweight rather than a few pounds underweight.  But one thing is certain.  If I had a choice between a woman in her 40s (like Hannah Storm), her 30s, or her 20s, nine times out of ten I’d choose the one in her 40s, especially if she were like Hannah Storm.

Nintendo Wii Sports and Avatar on Sale on

January 20, 2010

I have the cheapest new Nintendo Wii Sports and Wii Avatar Games for sale on the internet.  See and search for “Wii” in the search box.

I’m selling new copies of the Wii Play with Wii Remote by Nintendo for $42.25 (normal price $49.99).

I’m also selling new copies of Wii Avatar the Game for  $38.95 (normal price $49.99).

See for new and used books, books on CD and tape, music CDs, DVDs, and CD-roms.  Prices are usually the lowest on amazon.

Using Disrespect for Motivation

December 2, 2009

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog called “Using Disrespect to Motivate Yourself and Prove People Wrong.”

I decided to reprint some of it now.  You see it in sports all the time.  When you’re disrespected it gives you extra incentive to not only prove your doubters wrong, but to beat them if it’s in the sports world, or if outside of the sports world then at least to show them that they made the wrong decision.

You see, you take a personal slight, get upset about it, make it bigger than it is, and then actually relish the fact that someone disrespected you.  It takes on a life of its own – you never, ever forget – and then you do some truly great – even transcendent – things afterwards, partly because of the extra motivation.  You may say that you shouldn’t need that extra motivation, but it is what it is, and you should do whatever works for you.

I was reminded of this lately because of the recent situations involving Michael Jordan and Brett Favre, not to mention countless games in which underdogs beat favorites, and I’ve even had a few situations myself for which the concept applies.

I’ll start with me and then get to the more interesting stuff.

Three years ago I wrote about why I like working with kids with autism under my first FAQ at

“I’ve always loved sports, and I root for the underdog. Anybody who has played sports or been a sports fan knows that when someone says you can’t do something, you love to prove them wrong. I prefer working with the kids who have the most severe disabilities because I love the challenge. One of the things I like most about working with kids with autism is the amount of progress that they have the potential to make.”

In the past five years, I’ve worked with a lot of children and several adults with autism.  I have never had a situation that didn’t work out well.  But sometimes schedules change. I was working on sports skills with a five-year old child once.  When he started kindergarten he had less free time so I had to stop after about eight months.  Sports was the first thing to get cut because of the “schedule.”  I could have (perhaps should have?) – said that that made sense.  But I took it personally.

I use things like that for extra motivation and can honestly say that the kids who I work with make great progress in all areas.  I believe that with all my heart, and I will do anything to make it so.  I can assure you that any kids who I work with will end up being more successful in all areas (and I usually break the areas down into 1) academics, cognitive skills and communication skills; 2) social skills, playdates, and emotional awareness and management; and 3) sports, exercise, and motors skills).

Anyway, now onto Michael Jordan.  His speech at the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in September was considered controversial because he mentioned several times during which he felt slighted and he used those incidents for extra motivation.  Jordan was famous for that.

In 1993, LaBradford Smith of the Washington Bullets (yes, the Bullets – here’s hoping new owner Ted Leonsis will change the name back and change back to the old red white and blue uniforms too) scored 37 points against Jordan and the Bulls and supposedly said, “Nice game, Mike.”  Jordan vowed to score 37 points against the Bullets the next game by halftime and he scored 36 by the half, 47 in all in just 31 minutes.

Great story, but it never happened.  At least the part about Smith taunting Jordan.

The funny thing is that Jordan admitted later that Smith never taunted him, but he just made the story up to give him extra motivation.  Here are some highlights from the game in which Jordan got his revenge:

Jordan didn’t mention that incident during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, but he did mention the following, and I borrow from Brian Mahoney’s article from the Associated Press:

  • The coach who cut him from the varsity as a North Carolina schoolboy.

“I wanted to make sure you understood: You made a mistake, dude.”

  • Isiah Thomas, who allegedly orchestrated a “freezeout” of Jordan in his first All-Star game.

“I wanted to prove to you, Magic (Johnson), Larry (Bird), George (Gervin), everybody that I deserved (to be there) just as much as anybody else, and I hope over the period of my career I’ve done that without a doubt.”

  • Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy – Jordan called him Pat Riley’s “little guy” – who accused Jordan of “conning” players by acting friendly toward them, then attacking them in games.

“I just so happen to be a friendly guy. I get along with everybody, but at the same time, when the light comes on, I’m as competitive as anybody you know.”

  • The media who said Jordan, though a great player, would never win like Bird or Johnson.

“I had to listen to all that, and that put so much wood on that fire that it kept me each and every day trying to get better as a basketball player.”

  • Lastly, Utah’s Bryon Russell. Jordan recalled meeting Russell while he was retired and playing minor league baseball in 1994 – and with Sloan looking on in horror – told of how Russell insisted he could have covered him if Jordan was still playing. Russell later got two cracks at Jordan in the NBA finals, and he was the defender when Jordan hit the clinching shot to win the 1998 title.

“From this day forward, if I ever see him in shorts, I’m coming at him.”

Brett Favre is another example of someone who tries to prove somebody wrong.  Now let me first say that I’m not a Brett Favre fan.  I think he’s been overrated throughout his career because his tendency to throw too many interceptions hurt his team almost as much as his abilities helped him.  Also, he was very wishy-washy the last several years about whether to retire or continue to play quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.

In fact, a couple of years ago he said his heart wasn’t in the game.  I still think the Packers made the right choice by keeping Aaron Rodgers instead of Favre.  By the time Favre wanted to come back, Green Bay had made other plans.  But having said all that, Favre is having an unbelievable season.  True, he has a great running back and an excellent defense, but Favre has 24 touchdown passes and just three inteceptions, and the Vikings are 11-1.

The thing is, Favre wanted to play for the Vikings, one of the Packers’ most hated rivals last year but he had to go to the New York Jets instead.  This year he got his wish, and you have to give him credit – the Vikings beat the Packers twice this year.  Part of Favre’s motivation is to say, “I told you so,” to the Packers and to make the Packers regret their decision.  I don’t think it’s healthy to use revenge as a motivational tool, but maybe a little bit of “I told you so” or “I’ve proven you wrong” is healthy.

Now, this isn’t the stuff of MJ legend, but when I tried out for the junior high school tennis team in ninth grade, I was cut from the team.  I made the team the next year in high school, and during my junior and senior seasons I had a combined record of 23 wins and eight losses playing at number one doubles.  Then I lettered for four years at Division III Ohio Wesleyan University, albeit a small university.  I never forgot that the “coach” wrongly cut me in ninth grade and put other players on the team ahead of me whom I was much better than.

Then in 2000, after not playing competitively for a decade, I signed up to play in a 4.0-level tennis league.  They told me I would play the first match and then I showed up and they said I wasn’t going to play the first match – I would have to watch.  So I went home, cancelled the check, and looked for a 4.5-level (higher level) league.  I found one and won six of the eight matches I played in doubles.  The local tennis board had to rule on whether to let me play after cancelling the check and writing a new one.  Luckily, they let me play.

Anytime somebody tells you you can’t do something or doubts you, you hate it.  You hate it so much, but then you savor it.  Because it gives you extra motivation.  You never, ever forget it, and then you use it to achieve something great.

Use Play Dates to Foster Social Skills in Children with Autism

August 22, 2009

The biggest disappointment I’ve had in working with children with autism is the fact that many of their parents are so hypocritical when it comes to play dates.

Play dates are structured play sessions between two or more children.  They are done because kids with autism have a very hard time learning the social skills that come naturally to most children.  Play dates are very beneficial because children learn skills such as taking turns, sharing, communicating both verbally and through body language, and playing sports and board games.  They learn spontaneous play, which in turn improves the ability to learn.  They learn how to think on the fly and practice imaginative play, which helps with kids who only think concretely and not abstractly.  They develop a sense of humor, which does the same thing.  In fact, spontaneous and imaginative play can help kids generalize skills across different people and environments (the inability to generalize is a huge problem in autism.  Kids may be able to learn something at a certain desk with a certain instructor, but may not be able to do the same thing elsewhere with someone else).  Play dates (along with sports, exercise, and other motor skill practice) can help make kids improve their cognitive learning.

Anyway, the problem is that many parents only want to have their children play with kids who are “higher functioning” than their own kids.  Yet they refuse to allow kids who they believe are “lower functioning” to play with their kids for fear that their kids might not learn as much or might pick up bad habits.  In short, the parents are “stuck up” about their kids.

Parents:  you are not making a major commitment for the future by trying out a play date.  Try it, and if you don’t think it’s a good fit you don’t have to continue for a long period of time, but be open-minded.  Sometimes I think you’re more autistic than your children.  You only want to do the same things over and over and refuse to try anything new.   When I see this attitude, it makes me so ready to move onto the next career, whatever that will be.

I’ve heard parents say, “Johnny doesn’t want (or need) friends.  He has his brother.”  Be careful of saying, “Johnny like this but he doesn’t like that.”  So you’ve decided at this young age what he likes and doesn’t like for the rest of his life?  Why don’t you want him to have play dates?  Do you want him all for yourself?  Is it codependency?  Is it that there are so many other more important things, that you want to get those done first?  Is it because you are afraid of failure, and a child should only do something if it is 100% successful, otherwise it’s not worth trying?  Is it because you’re lazy?  Are you afraid the child might cry?  Is it because you just want to hand over big checks to therapists and then let them handle everything so you can be done with it?  Is your child better than other kids?  Whatever it is, it’s not right.

I’ve even known of a case in which a parent didn’t want his child to play with a particular child who was perceived to be lower functioning, even though his child clearly wanted to play with this child and was very distraught about it.  Try explaining that to the child.

The level of hypocrisy is amazing.  I’ve seen parents almost cry because typical children don’t want to play with their kids.  Then when their children take a leap forward, they themselves refuse to have their children play with kids who may be at a slightly lower level than them in certain areas.

Here’s an example of how a child who may have slightly higher skills in certain areas can still benefit from playing with children who may have slightly lower skills.  Child A sees that Child B gets upset easily.  Child A can learn to comfort Child B and say, “I hope you feel better.”  Then Child A can learn empathy.  Child A can also learn leadership skills.  And how about having fun?  You focus on things that both of them can do well, and maybe even more of the activities that the lower functioning child can do well.

I don’t mean to be too negative.  I even once met a parent who was neither a hypocrite about play dates, nor held her kids back from having them.  The reason I write this is that I have facilitated many play dates – over 100 – and the vast majority have worked out great, and the few parts of play dates that haven’t worked out great still help prepare kids for life’s ups and downs.

Be open to trying new things and breaking out of the structure the way things currently are.  Otherwise, you’re just going to get the same results you’ve always gotten.  Reading a social story is nice.  Participating in a social story is even better.

Note – I know the above may sound harsh.  Most of the parents I’ve met do a good job of setting up play dates for their kids, and most of them do want to see their kids have fun. I know of at least one parent for whom all I did for a year for her child was facilitate play dates, and on top of that, she had an additional playgroup.  Very impressive.

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  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 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, 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 (
  • Fitness for Health in Rockville has some excellent equipment and specializes in one on one training sessions.  See
  • Special Olympics provides sports for not only children but also adults with disabilities:  The Special Olympics national website is
  • There are a few youth hockey programs in the area such as the Montgomery Cheetahs (

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