This is my game

Kids with special needs shed their labels as they dive into their favourite sports

I’m standing in the cold blue-grey of a January evening, admiring my youngest daughter, Talia, as she glides down a hill. I can hardly believe it’s only her second time on skis. As well as the usual gear — helmet, ski boots and skis — she wears a harness that’s attached to a rope, allowing her two instructors to control her speed. She’s learning the basics, such as making pizzas with her skis (snowplowing) and riding the chairlift. At the Waterloo Region Track 3 Ski School at Chicopee Ski Resort in Kitchener, Ont., kids like Talia shed their labels of “developmental disability” or “autism” or “special needs,” and adopt another one — skier.

Over the years, we tried many ways to keep Talia active. It was easier when she was little. In a parent-tot gymnastics class, for example, she hardly stood out when she ran off or refused to sit in the circle. But as she got older, we learned some hard lessons. At age 10, Talia tried a hip hop dance class. On the last night, I learned that she had spent each session sitting on a chair, watching, because she couldn’t follow the steps. And she didn’t have the physical skills to join community sports, such as soccer or tennis.

It’s easy to imagine the challenges kids who have special needs face when it comes to sports. How can you play baseball, for example, if you can’t understand the rules? How can you skate if you use a wheelchair? While there are countless ways of adapting sports, many kids are still stuck on the sidelines: The 2009 Active Healthy Kids Canada report said that 40 percent of youth with physical disabilities spent more than four hours a day watching TV. And only half of kids with disabilities took part in organized sports outside of school.

But when families and recreation providers get creative, the possibilities open up. As well as the usual leagues and sports, many communities offer special programs, such as fencing in wheelchairs, adapted yoga and sledge hockey. Often what works best is a blend of inclusion in regular programs and specialized activities. That way kids can widen their circle of friends, while also receiving adapted instruction.

On the ice, in the water, on a horse, in front of a cheering crowd — kids are getting fit and having fun.

Making a splash Ever since her baby days, Grace Quirk (who has Down syndrome) has loved the water. Now age 11, she’s a strong swimmer who takes regular lessons offered by Guelph Recreation and Parks in Guelph, Ont. Since there are seven kids in the group, sometimes a volunteer joins the class in the pool. As at many community centres, an inclusion coordinator arranges one-to-one volunteer support, if needed.

Stick with it Can’t skate? Freaked out by the feel of hockey pads and helmets? No problem, says Derek Brodie, executive director of Guelph Giants Hockey, a team for players who have special needs due to autism, cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities. Non-skaters start by pushing chairs on the ice. Volunteer coaches also offer one-to-one instruction. “Hockey’s a great self-esteem builder,” says Brodie.

Khaden Nowack, a seven-year-old with autism, has found his game. See specialhockeyinternational.org to find a team near you.

Learning skills in the saddle While eight-year-old Keegan Caron (who has cerebral palsy) is obviously having a blast, it’s more than a joyride. He’s also learning balance, coordination and problem-solving skills. “Kids with physical or cognitive challenges get a sense of achievement and control. A horse never criticizes them,” says Ann Caine, executive director of Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch, Ont. One volunteer leads the horse, and two others walk on either side, helping the rider follow the instructor’s directions. All lessons have specific learning goals — for example, a child learns sorting on horseback as he drops pictures of farm and zoo animals into two different barrels. For therapeutic riding centres across Canada, see cantra.ca (Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association).

Cheer UP! “I see shy kids come out of their shells,” says Connie Franklin, coach of the Cheer Sports Sand Sharks in Cambridge, Ont. Young athletes come with challenges that include hearing loss, developmental disabilities, coordination difficulties and autism. Some do a double front roll or pyramid; those who use a walker or wheelchair do hand motions. Participants learn by mirroring the moves that Franklin and volunteers demonstrate. And the kids coach each other: “Hey, you’re supposed to be over here!”

As well as practising weekly, the team participates in mainstream competitions provincially and nationally. “They always get a standing ovation,” says Franklin.

Haley Veit, age 11, who has coordination and balance challenges, practises the routine.

Strong on the slopes After skiing for several winters at the Waterloo Region Track 3 Ski School, Kyle Nikolasevic, age 13, wanted to stretch himself.

Now Kyle conquers the slopes on a snowboard, guided by two volunteer instructors on boards nearby. Specialized equipment like helmets fitted with headsets enable athletes with visual impairments to follow their guides’ directions and stay safe.

Getting in the game

Attitude is the biggest barrier for kids with special needs when it comes to sports, says Megan Shirley, recreation therapist at KidsAbility Centre for Child Development in Waterloo, Ont. “Most programs want to be inclusive. They just don’t know how.” Shirley offers these tips:

• Start young. All preschoolers are wobbly on skates and gangly in gymnastics, so your child won’t stand out. Plus, her sense of belonging is more likely to carry on over time, despite differences in skill levels.

• Look for programs that focus on fun and building skills, rather than competition.

• Check out your local recreation centre. Many centres have an “inclusion coordinator” who can match your child with a volunteer for programs, such as swimming or dance.

• Resist the impulse to not disclose your child’s special needs. “Lack of information equals lack of success,” says Shirley.

• Get help. A recreation therapist can teach instructors how to adapt programs and help your child learn participation skills.

• Tap into the special-needs parenting network. Find out about dance studios, sports organizations and programs that other kids with special needs enjoy.

Special Olympics

Special Olympics provides opportunities for people who have mental disabilities to compete in everything from bowling to basketball. specialolympics.ca

Access Guide Canada For accessible activities in or near your community, go to enablelink.org and click on Organizations, then Sports and Recreation.