Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulty processing information received by the proprioceptive sense, which helps us judge where our bodies are in space and the amount of force needed to execute a movement. They typically struggle with connecting mental visualizations to physical action (gross motor planning). The physical contact involved in sports like wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu helps in the processing of proprioceptive input. Repetitive practice of techniques assists the brain in making the connection between visualizations and physical action. Participation in these sports also provides opportunities to practice recognizing social cues like turn taking, knowing when to start and when to stop, and social referencing (“if everyone is sitting down facing the same way so should I”).
Here are 5 strategies to be more effective coaching/teaching students with neurological differences:
- Meet the student where they are: Assess the student’s physical and cognitive abilities and try to stay within the boundary of that ability. New things are difficult, so try not to push too hard too soon. Gestures and modeling are sometimes better than words.
- Encourage, praise, and correct appropriately: Encourage students to try new things but have them understand that they can try them when they are ready. “Good job!” with a pat on the back or an appropriate squeeze, goes a long way towards encouraging students to try something again. Correct behavior using errorless learning. Try not to point out what a student did wrong, but guide them towards the correct technique. Instead of saying, “No, you stepped wrong,” try saying, “Good effort, but this time place your foot here.”
- Think of “bad” behavior as communication of a need: Often, when a student with ASD is acting out, it is because using words is hard when excited or upset. Try to have the student take some deep breaths and ask you for what they want. Do your best to comply with the request to show the student you are listening and are there to help.
- Structure tasks: Try to organize each activity with a clear start and finish, so the students know what is coming next, for example “first 20 takedowns, then water.” A schedule of what is going to happen during practice can also be helpful. Less ambiguity means less anxiety about what to expect.
- Have a break plan for hard times: Have a signal or one word that helps both the coaches and student become aware that a break is needed. Scout out a comfortable, quiet location where the student can go and not be interrupted. Access to this break is non-contingent and should require the least amount of words possible.
Above all, the key to coaching/teaching students with ASD is to be patient. When you get frustrated, remember that what the student may be doing to upset you is not intentional. Stay positive, play, and show lots of affection—big gestures and wide smiles. Sometimes you may need to whisper. Becoming a great coach is learning what makes each student different and building a relationship with them the best you can.
About the Author: Thomas Mancha is a behavioral support specialist working with students diagnosed with neurological differences, including ASD, at the Monarch School and Institute in Houston, Texas. He is a certified Quality Behavioral Solutions Safety-Care Instructor, specializing in ethical response plans to behavioral crises. Mr. Mancha is also a Bronze certified USA Wrestling Coach and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt under Marcus Bello of GFTeam.
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