Who were you cheering for in the FIFA World Cup? Throughout the world, all attention was drawn to the final game. As I watch these elite athletes who have trained their entire lives to have the opportunity to be in this event, I thought about young people with special needs who often enjoy sports, but have limited opportunities to be included. I decided to research what programs are out there. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of programs that I found.
As a St. Mary’s graduate and follower of Notre Dame football since I was three years of age, I was really pleased to hear about how Notre Dame athletes reached out to a 10-year-old boy with autism prior to the start of their summer camp. They visited his home, had dinner and, of course, played football. In
addition, they told the coach about the young man and on the first day of camp, the coach introduced himself. The other players greeted him with high-fives, smiles and encouragement. Before this experience, he attended the camp for three summers, but barely talked with the other kids and only minimally interacted with the players and other campers. This year he was proud, excited, happy and interacted with enthusiasm.
Other sports such as surfing, soccer and hockey have also reached out to children with
autism. Pro surfer Israel Paskowitz used his unique talents to develop Surfers Healing, a free one-day surf camp in which professional surfers teach children with autism. Three thousand children on an annual basis participate in 22 camps across the country. Although we don’t have a camp in Erie, it would be great to travel to one of their sites to have Ryan participate.
Another program to consider is US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer. A community based training and team placement program for young athletes with disabilities and organized by youth soccer association volunteers. The program is designed to bring the opportunity of learning and playing soccer to any boy or girl who has a mental or physical disability.
In 2012, Kevin Gilroy, a Boston University men’s ice hockey player, founded Athletes 4
Autism to help children with autism after his involvement with teaching a local hockey clinic for children with special needs. He worked with The Autism Research Foundation (TARF) to establish an inclusion program that would benefit children with autism by hosting athletic clinics taught by college athletes. “My future vision for Athletes 4 Autism is to have a place where kids can just come and be themselves, with and without disabilities,” Gilroy said. “They learn that just because a kid has autism doesn’t mean that he can’t play hockey or he can’t play sports. Everybody can play.”
I’m planning to share my blog with the directors of the local college athletic programs, as well as the Erie Seawolves and Bayhawks. Perhaps they would be willing to explore similar programs using these models. I’d encourage you to investigate the opportunities in your community and share these success stories, which promote an inclusive sports environment.