LEARN ABOUT AUTISM
Young people on the autism spectrum typically have differences in how they socialise and communicate with others. They are usually very keen to join in, they just may need your support to do so.
Every autistic person different. Some people may like tasks to be done in a particular way or order. Others might have a favourite activity that they are happy to do over and over again, and may need lots of warning to switch between activities. Some young people on the autism spectrum may find loud noises or particular sounds or textures uncomfortable.
If you have an autistic player in your group, take the time to get to know their likes and dislikes, and what they are comfortable and not comfortable doing.
By providing a safe and supportive environment, you can help keep them engaged and safe. With a little planning, you can ensure young people on the autism spectrum have enriching opportunities to make friends, learn new skills and participate in the footy fun.
You may notice some players having difficulty expressing themselves or understanding the meaning of some things you’ve said. They may not know when or how to join in activities with other players, or they may choose to keep to themselves if they’re not comfortable in social situations.
An autistic player may feel uncomfortable making eye contact with you. They may stand close, talk loudly, or say things that don’t seem to fit during a coaching session.
Some players may require additional structure to help them understand how the day will pan out at a footy session, and to support them to move between activities.
The key is to ensure they feel included and prepared for what you have planned for the day.
My name's Elise, and this is my story.
I'm First Nation. I'm part of the LGBTQIA+ community. I'm proudly autistic, and I also have ADHD and anxiety.
I really love footy, especially because, living with anxiety, I perform well when I have certainty and consistency. And knowing at the end of the day or on certain days I've got training, knowing that when I show up what the process is gonna be, that really provides that for me. And it means that I can do something with my body to let that out as opposed to just sitting in my thoughts.
Anxiety doesn't feel very good to live with. It's feelings in your body and how your body is also affects how your mind thinks. It's struggling to leave the house, staying on the toilet that little bit too long 'cause you've got an upset stomach. On the footy field, it's feeling anxious and thinking that you're not good enough. It's thinking about the future and worrying about the day ahead. And it's also thinking about your last encounter that people don't like you or that you've done something wrong.
Anxiety means I really care about doing the right thing. When the communication is done well, and I know what I need to do to perform means that my anxiety is of purpose. The anxiety doesn't get in the way. I'm not in my head. I'm responding and reacting to what's in front of me.
When I was playing for Essendon, I would desensitise myself before the game. The other thing is with the huddles, I'll be on the outside of the huddle, so then I'm not feeling overwhelmed. There's a lot of strategies that I've learned along the way so that I can perform my best. I didn't know them for myself when I was younger. What I found was, as I implemented the strategies, my anxiety around having that went down. So I was able to, bit by bit, step that little bit closer.
I have autism. I have ADHD. I have anxiety. I have these labels, and the disability doesn't live in them. The disability exists when the environment, approach and system isn't created with me in mind, and my needs get left behind. They're not supported and therefore, my differences is a limitation.
What I like about footy is the camaraderie. The feeling like you belong. It's the first time in my life where I felt that I was wanted.
This is my story, but everyone's story will be different. In the next section, you will learn tips of how to support young people with anxiety to participate in footy. For example, you could have a consistent routine at each session to help players feel confident to join in.
Strategies and tips
Creating a consistent routine for each session can assist players to become familiar with what’s coming up next.
Create a visual schedule
Get creative and make a visual schedule for each session that young people on the autism spectrum can see at all times so they know what’s coming up next. This can support players when transitioning from one activity to the next. You could use a whiteboard or flipchart.
Ensure your venue is safe
A venue with fences and closed gates may help parents and players feel at ease. Some young people on the autism spectrum might run away when feeling stressed or overwhelmed, so it can be a great idea to have parents or a buddy help keep an eye on players who may need additional support.
Use footy stories
An engaging footy story can help encourage young people to play. These are stories with text and pictures that you can find on our Parent Information Page.
Simplify and repeat
Consider how you communicate. Some autistic players might learn best with simple instructions. You also may need to repeat instructions multiple times.
Minimise background noise and distractions
You might need to face the group away from distractions behind you (like another game or people) while giving instructions so players can hear and focus on your coaching.
Be calm and reassuring
Do not raise your voice or shout and be careful not to talk down to players.
Use a large clock or timer that each player can see at all times to know when the session or activity will finish.
Stop or change activities carefully
Give warning about changes when possible, and if you need to interrupt, do it carefully. Consider allowing players to take a break, or to keep doing things their own way when possible in an activity. Use the same cue to change activities such as using a certain word.
Consider your use of a whistle
Players who find loud noises uncomfortable may not like the sound of a whistle. Consider using a different method of starting and stopping activities (eg. visual signs), or gradually support the player to become more comfortable with the whistle.
Keep activities short
Plan for shorter activities to help young people on the autism spectrum to stay focused on the activity while it is being played.
Try small groups
Vary the sizes when arranging group activities, and be mindful of players attending who might feel more comfortable playing in a smaller group.
Match groups by skill level
Matching players of the same skill level in small groups may help them feel more at ease and confident in their abilities.
Joining in may take time
Allow autistic players to join the group in their own time. It’s important to remember that this may not be at the start of an activity.
Allow alternative ways to play
Some players may need support coordinating their movements and keeping up in a game. If you notice that a punt kick is difficult, for example, let them soccer kick the ball, or practise kicking it off a stand.
Offer all roles
There are many roles on the footy field. Young people can do other roles if they don’t want to join the game as a player, like throw the ball back in or umpire.
Provide equipment that suits a young person's ability and sensory needs
Allow young people to choose the piece of equipment they would like to use. This might be their own gear, such as a particular-coloured football they feel attached to.
Consider the weather
Bad weather (rain, too hot, too cold, stormy) might make it uncomfortable for some players to play outside. Have a weather plan that includes identifying a place indoors like the clubroom to run your sessions.
Young people can wear gloves
Some autistic players may be uncomfortable with getting wet and muddy. You could suggest they wear gloves to become confident touching the football.
Have a quiet area
Create a space somewhere on the football field, away from the main action, where a young person and parent can go without getting too much attention.
Make learning as easy as possible
Break down sessions into basic steps which build up as players develop, allowing each player to understand each skill in it's entirety.
Slow things down
Slow down an activity the first few times it is played so players have time to learn. For example, encourage walking rather than running in an activity the first few times it is played.
Use visual instructions and demonstrations
Show the player how to do the skill or activity using visual instructions and demonstrations. This may help them understand how to do the skill or activity.
Start with a few rules
Begin your session with activities that only have a few rules to remember. Introduce additional rules one at a time after players have learned the flow of the activity.
Use repetition when learning skills
Some players may need extra practise. Allow time for them to repeat skills so they can get the hang of a new skill. Learning a skill might require coaches to break it down into smaller parts to learn individually before eventually putting it all together. Move on from each step once the young person has mastered the skill.
Some players may need extra practise
Allow time for them to repeat skills so they can get the hang of a new skill. Learning a skill might require coaches to break it down into smaller parts to learn individually before eventually putting it all together.
A discreet and brief chat post session with a young person on the autism spectrum and their family can help identify what activities they enjoyed, and whether some activities can be further modified for next time.
AllPlay Footy is a joint initiative by Monash University and the AFL. AllPlay Footy was founded at Deakin University in 2015 and has been part of Monash Education since 2021. The AllPlay Footy content and resources presented here have been developed with people with lived experience of disability, consultants from National Sporting Organisations for People with Disability, psychologists and researchers, and are brought to you with funding from a Department of Social Services Information, Linkages and Capacity Building: Social and Community Participation Stream (2020-2024) grant. We aim to use language that is respectful to everyone.