“A few years ago, I couldn’t even go out of the house by myself,” says Daniel Mynott. That was before he started getting involved in sport. “Now, I go all over London and the country. I have so many friends I’ve lost count. I even have my own car.”
Mynott has autism. A few years ago, when he was 15, the Change Foundation turned up at his school and encouraged him to try taking part in sport. “I hated sport,” he says. “I was lazy as hell, but they saw my potential, they saw I was good with people. Gradually, I fell in love with it.”
Mynott’s people skills led him into coaching, and he now works for the Change Foundation as a development officer. He coaches “cricket, football, dodgeball, you name it,” although his passion is cricket.
“Cricket is all about communication; if you don’t talk, it doesn’t work,” he says. Finding communication and social interaction difficult is a typical characteristic of autism, and most traditional therapies focus on the importance of developing social skills. However, with sport, it happens naturally.
“It changes you without you knowing it,” says Mynott. “Because all the focus is on the game.”
There can be a tendency to encourage people with autism into individual activities such as running and swimming, where the need to communicate is less important. There have been successful autistic athletes in these sports, such as the 2012 Paralympics gold-medal-winning swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate.
Those who prefer individual sports will still gain social benefits through their relationships with the coaches or other participants, but Mynott recommends team sports. “I wouldn’t have had all these benefits if I’d done an individual sport,” he says.
Amy Webster, coordinator of the Active for Autism programme at the National Autistic Society, agrees. “There’s a massive misconception that people with autism can’t do team sports,” she says. “They can.”
Webster coaches a mixed disability football team and travels the country training sports coaches in how to deal with autism.
“The beauty, but also the struggle, of autism is that each person is different. So, as a coach, you have to adapt. What works for one person might not work for another.”
Some typical barriers may include difficulty with body language, the colour of the clothes, even the whistle. If a player has a problem with a coach’s whistle, for example, she says the coach could try visual aids, such as red or green cones.
Mynott says the key to being a successful coach to someone with autism is building trust. “Everything else flows from that,” he says. It was his relationship with his coach that led him to discover his love of sport.
He says his coaching ethos is to start slowly, focusing on an activity or a practice routine for as long as it takes until the person is ready to join in with a group.
Improved social skills is not the only thing to be gained from taking part in sport. Research in the US found that children with autism were more likely to be overweight than other children. This was often linked to the increased barriers stopping them from being active.
Overcoming these barriers can have far-reaching benefits. As well as the physical and mental gains from returning to a healthy weight, research has shown that taking part in sport can decrease the frequency of negative, self-stimulating behaviours common among people with autism, such as body rocking or head nodding. Additionally, exercise can discourage aggressive and self-injurious behaviour and improve one’s attention span.
Carol Povey, director at the National Autistic Society’s Centre of Autism, says getting involved in sport can have a huge impact on the self-esteem of someone with autism. “This is really important,” she says. “One mother told me that playing football helped her son immensely, because when he was playing with the team no one thought about his autism – he was just another team member.”
But what if you’re no good at sport? Isn’t there a risk – one that would also apply to people without autism – that it can lead to frustration and hurt your self-esteem even more?
Webster says she trains coaches to be aware of this and suggests changing the targets to make them more realistic. “Winning and losing can be a big struggle,” she says. “Make the goal simply to make a good pass or to join in with the group.”
Povey says it is important not to make blanket assumptions when it comes to autism; as with everyone else, some people will love sport and some will hate it. “But when it works,” she says, “it works really well.”
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