Joanna Smith’s son, Owen, began playing baseball at the age of 11 through a program called Challenger Sports. Unlike most recreational sports teams, Challenger Sports is a program designed for children living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This was more than just playing baseball – it was an opportunity for Owen to learn important life skills.
For some children on the spectrum, like Owen, participating in an organized sport can be a challenge. “Owen couldn’t play on a team regularly because he struggles with losing. He struggles if he doesn’t hit the ball on his first pitch or doesn’t get a goal. It’s difficult for him to control his emotions in a typical way. He can, however, play in a gym class with his typical peers,” says Joanna.
Children and adults living with ASD struggle with social and communication skills. Sometimes speech and sensory responses also require more support. However, because the condition is a spectrum, an individual’s strengths and challenges may vary within the diagnosis.
Alex Fawcett-Drummond, a board-certified behaviour analyst in Oakville, says including children with ASD in an organized sport has many benefits. “Learning to navigate social situations without someone doing it for them can help children build independence and work on problem-solving”, says Fawcett-Drummond. “It even provides the opportunity for a child to ask an adult or peer for support, or even be the one to approach a peer and start an intersection”, she adds.
At the Oakville Soccer Club, inclusion is the foundation of their Breaking Barriers program, launched in the Fall of 2015. Developed for children with physical and/or intellectual disabilities, Breaking Barriers was designed to introduce participants to the fundamentals of physical literacy and the sport of soccer in a safe and inclusive space.
Fawcett-Drummond says, “For kids with ASD, participating in integration provides them with learning opportunities and exposure to situations they wouldn’t otherwise have to work on social and communication skills – in addition to whatever the activity itself targets, whether it’s soccer or pottery.” She adds, “Having a peer group to model social and communication skills is invaluable to kids on the spectrum.”
Lillian Smith, whose son went through the Breaking Barriers program, says it’s incredible to see the coaches get in tune with the children and work with them one-on-one.
Director of Marketing and Communications at Oakville Soccer Club, Katryna Indewey, says this type of program is imperative in our community and wouldn’t be possible without support from the Oakville Soccer Club and its sponsors who contribute to the overall budget.
Now in its fourth year of supporting the community, the Breaking Barriers program has seen over 400 registrations and 500 volunteers participate.
While Fall registration is closed, winter registration is opening soon and will be available to players ages 4 to 16.
This program takes place on the indoor fields of the Pine Glen Soccer Centre, which is a 100,000 square foot indoor soccer facility.
For parents like Joanna and her son Owen, organized sport through programs like Breaking Barriers and Challenger Sports has provided not only freedom from ASD but some peace of mind. In learning critical skills, children and their parents feel empowered, determined, and resilient while also increasing their network of support with other families and coaches
by Anneliese Lawton
Oakville Soccer Club