“It was through the world of sports and legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn that I was able to find my voice and thus communicate with the world.”
Ethan Hanson was diagnosed with high functioning Asperger’s syndrome when he was 4 years old. Asperger’s is an Autism Spectrum Disorder which is characterized through difficulties with social interactions, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. Ethan’s mother was told by doctors that he would never live a normal life. Ethan had aggressive behaviours that were a result of frustrations stemming from a lack of appropriate communication strategies and peer interactions. He was bullied for being “different” and struggled to find a place where he fit in, until he discovered sports. So what is the benefit of recreational sports for children with ASD?
1. There are rules.
Children with ASD and Asperger’s are rule seekers. They are most successful in environments that are consistent and predictable, much like that of a basketball court or a soccer field. While we can’t always predict the call of a referee, sport teaches children about flexibility and subjectivity while maintaining much needed structure. Ethan was a speed reader and would memorize sports stats using his strong mathematical memory. He took comfort in the predictability of numbers and math and would apply them to his life both on and off the field.
“I’d turn off the volume so I could talk, then I’d close my eyes and imagine I was there then open my eyes to watch the game and call the game as if I were Chick Hearn or Marv Albert. I never missed a game and I would stay up past my bedtime to continue to announce.”
2. Improved Social Skills.
Finding a safe, non-threatening environment to hone physical activity skills will also provide a number of social skills development opportunities, including: leadership, empathy, turn taking and healthy competition. Ethan was bullied at school which led to fighting and a lack of social relationships with his peers. A a competitive child, he would throw tantrums when he lost and had difficulty coping with his own high expectations. When his Mom put him into Martial Arts, he learned valuable lessons about respect and self-reflection. The sport expected a strict discipline that demanded a harnessing of his anger towards something positive.
“It wasn’t just getting to throw people around, it was about learning to respect your opponents and teachers.”
3. Combats Weight Gain.
The risk of adolescent weight gain in children with Autism can be partly attributed to a lack of physical activity and inconsistent dietary patterns, and partly to the side effects of widely used anti-psychotic prescription drugs. Children with Autism can have sensory sensitivities that make them picky eaters and they may have aversions to certain textures and temperatures
4. Decreases Behaviours.
One characteristic of ASD is “stimming”, which are repetitive behaviours such as rocking back and forth, head nodding and hand flapping. The highly structured routines of individual sports such as running or swimming are similar to and can distract from the repetitive behaviours associated with ASD. Ethan’s behaviours manifested in attention-seeking aggression towards family and peers. He would headbutt his younger brother and clench his fists in rage when he didn’t get his way. Football allowed Ethan to release a lot of aggression he felt towards his family, peers and himself.
“It was all about contact, intensity, toughness and discipline.”
6. Sensory input.
Movement and activity can help those ASD children with Sensory Processing Disorders. Coordination is often difficult for children who have poor Proprioception, which is the ability to locate the body in space. Therapy can include pushing heavy objects and lifting weights.
7. Builds Confidence.
Self-esteem is built when an individual succeeds and is praised. Similar to the effects of Applied Behavioural Analysis, the positive reinforcement one receives from recreational sports builds a sense of physical and emotional self-worth for kids with Autism. Organized sport allowed Ethan to express himself in a positive way. He attributes his success to those who recognized his talent and pushed and motivated him to excel in what he succeeded in.
“Just because the world sees you as different doesn’t make you bad, it means that you are powerful beyond what they can imagine. At the end of the day, people like us are born with the potential to do wonderful things for the world.”
Ethan Hanson is a play-by-play sports announcer with Asperger’s Syndrome. After high school he attended Pierce College and became the school sports broadcaster for football, basketball, soccer, volleyball, baseball and soccer. He has been broadcasting high school and junior college sports for 5 years, and is currently a contributor for the Last Word on Sports and hosts his own webshow “Deuces Wild.”
READ MORE about Ethan’s journey.