For Coaches Coaching Autistic Children

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Is there anyone out there with advice on coaching autistic children? I've just had one join one of my classes. He is 7 years old. Started school in a special needs unit but has now moved into main stream classes.

He attended his first class last Saturday. It didn't go that well as he didn't want to join in with the class and only wanted to have free play on whatever equipment he chose. I think he's done kindygym previously - a fairly unstructured environment and I think that might have been what he was expecting.

He would turn up in my group look like he might join in, but if I asked if he wanted a turn or to join in he just said no and would run off.

I intend to talk to his mother more next Saturday before we start the class to try and get a handle on the best way to handle the situation but any ideas / experiences from anyone else out their would be great.



Hi! I coach a 4-year-old girl who has Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of Autism. She is in one of my preschool classes, and her parents did not tell me she had Asperger's.

She was very defiant in class and often failed to follow instructions, even after hearing them several times. She is often rough with other children. For example, she turned a mat tunnel sideways while another child was crawling through, virtually "trapping" the child for a second before I came over and pulled the tunnel away.

I put her in time-out, just as I would any child who misbehaves. I also make her apologize to any child she mistreats.

After several weeks, her mother pulled me aside and THANKED me for being strict and consistent with the discipline. It was then the mother said her daughter has Asperger's, explained that it was a form of autism, and that being defiant to authority is one of the hallmarks of the disease.

If I were you, I would call the child's parents in advance of the class. Introduce yourself, tell them you have enjoyed having their child in class, and assure them you want him to receive the best gymnastics experience possible. Ask what is the best way the child learns, and how they handle discipline issues. I think it's good for these kids to receive similar discipline at home and at the gym, if possible. Give the parents your e-mail address or a good way to get in touch with you, should they have any questions or concerns. I think keeping the lines of communication open is key!

Best of luck!


Hi - I have taught both autistic and aspergers children over the years in my Primary school class and this has included PE and gymnastics lessons.

Firstly Aspergers is NOT a disease - it cannot be caught. It is a condition.
Secondly Apsergers and Autism are individual conditions - every single child will be very different. While there may be similar traits not all children have all traits.

I have taught children with Aspergers similar to mentioned above.
I have taught children with Autism very very different to mentioned above.

The last autistic child I had was very loving and gentle. He would happily copy movements for gymnastics and really loved doing it. He loved knowing all the names for things (like log roll and straddle sit - only simple really).
They do love routine. Have your class follow the same outline plan each week. If possible give it to them on a piece of paper. They will love to remind you what comes next.
Be gentle but firm with behaviour. Sit at side for an activity if needed. I don't know how many are in the class but if the child is a runner you need an assistant to look after them. They would need to remind the child to look at you and listen and to repeat instructions etc, bring back to area etc. It is not really fair to the other parents or children if you have to keep leaving their children to deal with it. They will need less support as they understand your 'plan' and expectations and build a relationship with you. Perhaps mum would come in and do this for you for the first few weeks? They also cannot focus for as long as other children on things like PE so you may need to shorten activities.

Talk to whoever took the child in their previous class. You need to know their little foibles and what sets them off/ what they respond to. Some have an aversion or love to a particular colour etc - sounds silly but can explain why they wont go through the blue mat tunnel or keep going back to jump on the green mat. Try and bear these foibles in mind when you plan your session. eg. I would always make Chris captain of the Green team (his colour) as it made him giggle and laugh and set the session off to a smiley start.

These children are fascinating and will give you a new and amazing view of our world. Other children also benefit from knowing them in lots of different ways. Their turn taking, understanding and helping abilities all improve. You will find the other children will eventually 'lead' the child through activities and help encourage them to sit and listen etc. All wonderful things. I have had really shy children come out of their shell 'looking after' autistic children.

Hope this helps - please PM if you have any specific questions.
And Enjoy!


Some of it depends on the kid.

If it's "OMG NEW ENVIRONMENT" you aren't going to, at this time, get much performance. Especially if he has anxiety about doing things wrong, or if he's finding himself in sensory overload (which is exquisitely unpleasant). Other common issues with teaching autistic kids are
a) they really need a schedule-some kids need just a general outline, some want to know what skills will be done on what apparatus in what order, some kids can deal with words, some need pictures
b) auditory processing. Those lights over your head? They make SOUND. So do all those other kids. And you're giving instructions, probably verbally. THis is all making Noise Soup.
c) other sensory issues (not being able to judge the distance to the spring board is a fun one to deal with, not getting dizzy or getting VERY dizzy...some kids will just kind of shudder at the idea of chalk)
d) unclear expectations.

Is it at all possible to give the child a tour of the gym before class? I also hate to suggest a private lesson, but one may let him get the idea of what he's supposed to do on each apparatus without so much other stuff competing for headspace.


Thankyou to everyone that's replied. I think I might contact the mother during the week and have a chat about learning styles, things he responds to, things that cause him problems etc. Then I might invite them to come to the class early (luckily it's the first class of the day) and work with me one on one for a short time before the class starts and then try and encourage him to participate in the class (at least the first little bit) and try to extend the time in the structured class each week.

We always start the class with the same thing so hopefully this will help the routine part. I do change the warm up game etc. each week but everything always fall in the same order so hopefully this will be enough in terms of routine.

I'm also planning to enroll the support of his mother. I'm sure she'll be happy to stay and help as required.



Proud Parent
Dec 9, 2008
I, too, have a child with autism in one of my classes. He is 12, and verbal. His mom comes in for the class every week, although she is trying to gradually work her way out. We also have an older team girl who helps out with this class, and she remains with the group he is in. Basically, she is learning how to work with him, and eventually will be there to help me instead of the mom (mom's idea). If you have an older, mature, responsible team girl who could do this, its invaluable. When children with significant special needs such as this are mainstreamed in the school setting, they usually have a one-on-one aide in the classroom. I'm surprised the parents just threw him into your class without meeting with you first and discussing his capabilities, limits, and sensitivities!

Everyone had some great ideas about this. I'd recommend having another teacher or teacher's helper. If you have a direction for the child, stop and make sure he is looking you directly in the eyes and then check for comprehension ("what are you going to do at this station?"). Try to keep the noise level of the class down. And definitely talk to the parents about strategies that they use at home.

Good luck!


I've worked with a handful of children with Autism over the years varying a lot. Some could do the class eventually by themselves while others had tutors with them. I know eventually we set up a class for children with whatever learning disorders though it always was nice to have a jr coach to help along.

Do some research and you'll find out there is a wide variance of severity. Some love doing the same things all the time and freak when they don't. Some don't talk, some do. Most will not look you straight in the eyes. Not a good tolerance of discomfort sometimes.

It's very rewarding but can be stressful. Honestly, as I've become associated with competitive coaching it's hard to turn on that switch for coaching this niche. I can switch from competitive to rec pretty easily but I'd prefer to have a tutor along so they don't go running in the opposite direction randomly.
Oct 27, 2008
Colby, Kansas
It is challenging but very rewarding so hang in there. We have a 9 yr old autistic girl who does very well after getting used to everything. Right now our biggest issue is just letting her know when she is asking inappropriate questions. I think the most important thing is to keep reminding them what you are doing and keeping them on track. We also have a more challenging child who is 7 yr old blind and autistic girl she does a private lesson with two coaches just for her. We tried having her in a regular class with an extra helper just for her, but that just didn't work. It was to distracting for the other children. She is truely amazing. Each kid is different I think talking to his parent and making a plan will help so much.
Sep 21, 2008
It may be difficult... but consistency and structure are key...

Depending on the severity and the behavioral manifestations of this particular child, you may find that you spend more time "training" them to interact socially and in an gymnastics environment then actually teaching them gymnastics.

You need to remember - one of the biggest signs of autism/aspergers is a lack of social awareness. To many of them, looking at a child in a rolled up tube is a good expiriment as to what happens when the tube gets flipped. They havent learned it's a bad idea. They havent learned that they are not supposed to do that. Empathy is, in many many cases, missing. If they are taught how they are expected to be, and given consistent structure, they will (just like any other gymnast) perform the part.

Just... feel the kid out... it's hard to explain.. but even with some of the most void and flat affect autistic children.. there's something there... s/he's there for a reason.. figure it out, and give them what they need to succeed.



I am a parent of a child with a Bi-polar and ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), as well as a girls gym coach. I have found that the key to success for him was to keep the lines of communication open with his coach's. Trying to keep his "plan" for gym classes the same as home, and other sports. I also came in to be his "spotter" which has helped keep him focused and on task. This is important as he could easily disrupt the class in an instant, which can become a war zone. Your child may benefit from one of his parents coming in for a while, as the child could feel a bit overwhelmed. This could help him settle in a bit better. With my son I need to break the elements down to a series of smaller ones. For instance the forward roll on the P/Bar's would look really hard for him and he would flip out. So I would sit him up there, with heaps of padding underneath. Then he would rock himself upside down until he felt comfortable. Then pad him over. It takes special planning for these dear souls, but when you finally find a way to get through to them, It can be the most rewarding time as a coach. I commend you for trying to teach children with needs, some coaches wouldn't. Good luck.


I agree that it is beneifical to have the parent in attendance. I have found this helps you learn from the parent what things work for the child.

Safety is paramount. If any of the boys I coach have issues were there is a risk they will run off, play on equipment unsupervised and injure themselves then I always talk to the parent and if necessary insist they attend. It is unfair on other children in the class if you spend most of the lesson chasing and disciplining one child.

In my experience the autistic and Aspergers kids can be a joy to teach. I have been lucky in that parents have been very supportive and have been willing to attend the class to assist if necessary. In saying this we must also accept that we have limitations, we are usually not physiotherapists, paediatricians, or occupational therapists etc, we are gymnastic coaches.


Gold Membership
Proud Parent
My daughter helps coach a group of children that are in their own Special Olympic group on Saturdays. The kids in that group have various issues including Down's Syndrome, Asperger's and autism and PDD. They are generally paired 1:1 with a child and this seems to work quite well. There are about 6-7 total in this group. In the spring, the group competes at the Special Olympics. Hope this hellps...


ASD Autism Spectrum Disorder is just that. It is on a continuum. Generally good teching/coaching processes will suit an aspergas/autistic child or should teaching all kids using strategies suggested for ASD kids will have great results.

Here are some things I learnt over 31 years of teaching.
Be consistent with expectations
Say what you want NOT what you don't
Don't generalise or use sayings like "You'll have to pull your socks up'
Don't get angry or yell.
Understand that sensations with an ASD child are often amplified. A noisy gym would be EXTRA noisy to him/her. Your sweaty arm spotting might be really disturbing. Being in close proximity when spotting may upset.
Being in enclosed spaces like a tunnel might cause panic.

ASD kids generally like routine and don't always cope with change well. Gymnastics does have many routines/drills and often an ASD child will cope better doing things over & over than a non ASD but when you change things it needs to be carefully set out for them.

ASD kids can be just naughty the same as any kid ...I guess the skill of the coach is knowing what is ASD reaction and what is being naughty.

Does your gym allow parents to help. Mum might be a good assistant coach for a while to help you learn the ropes (if she is coping well with ASD of course) Like the fact that ASD kids are all different so are the level of parenting skills of the parents. Don't assume they be always a help.
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