Kickball was one of my favorite childhood sports. Our weekly neighborhood games were even sweeter because we had a designated pitcher. Jonathan would be the first one on the empty lot at the end of our street. He’d always bring the ball, and as long as we could get at least four kids together, we had a game. Jonathan used a wheelchair, but he loved kickball, and for us, that’s all that mattered.
Having a sense of belonging and being accepted by a team is one of the many benefits for kids who play sports. And even if your child has special needs or a disability – and doesn’t have a welcoming neighborhood kickball game to join – those benefits are within reach.
Taking That First Leap
Some parents, though, are afraid of letting their child get involved. “There’s a certain fear that lies not only in being unsure whether your child can actually do what it takes to play the sport, but there’s also that fear that no one can handle your child but you,” a parent whose child participates in programs run by Leaps n Boundz, an adaptive sports and recreational physical education program, confides. Leaps n Boundz gives kids as young as 18 months the chance to participate in swimming, gymnastics, basketball and surfing.
The Leaps n Boundz gymnastics facility in West L.A. features specialized equipment, and founders Joclynn Benjamin and Eric Amundson typically work in small groups with three students per instructor, but there are individualized plans available as well. At a recent group class, it was exciting to watch kids jump on the trampoline, tumble and learn a dance routine. “At every practice we focus on basic motor planning, problem solving and sequencing, organizational behavior like taking turns and the sensory component – for example, whether or not the child likes to go fast or slow, spin or flip,” says Benjamin. “We try and help them feel safe, yet make progress.”
One parent of a 13-year-old says that after her son’s autism diagnosis, she wasn’t sure he would ever be away at an overnight trip. Now, he looks forward to regular trips with Leaps n Boundz – and she does, too. “The memories he makes when he’s away is what every parent wants for their child,” she says. “And it’s not at all hard to get those few days for myself.”
Amundson also notes that even the smallest step can lead to sports experiences kids might have thought were impossible. “[One girl] started in gymnastics with us, and we were able to introduce her to an adaptive skiing experience at Mammoth Mountain,” he says. “They start off small, but over time they learn to get outside of their comfort zone and live life to the fullest.”
Camaraderie, Not Competition
Letting your child play sports doesn’t have to mean throwing them into a highly competitive environment. Sometimes friendship is the goal. The Friendship Circle hosts a weekly basketball clinic for boys with special needs. The clinic is taught by a professional sports therapist and emphasizes skill-building through drills, but there’s no actual game played. Development Director Gail Rollman says the clinic can have a huge impact on some kids’ self-esteem. “There’s a boy who uses a walker, and he was very apprehensive a year ago,” she says. “But to see him now leave his walker to the side, feel secure and knowing his buddy is there to support him, he’s developed confidence, in addition to these basketball skills, and the parents are thrilled to watch him shooting hoops.”
Beverly Hills Little League’s Challenger program run by husband-and-wife team Jonathan and Brooke Goldberg also puts fun before competition. Participants ages 7 to 55 with special needs are matched with volunteers of similar ages and interests. Their weekly baseball game is less about foul balls and strikeouts, and more about hits and home runs. “The games are non-competitive in that there’s no three-strike rule and everybody gets a hit,” says Brooke. “We play a three-inning game and every inning ends with a home run.”
The Challenger’s “Angels” play the “Dodgers” during an eight-week season, and the relaxed way the games are played helps kids progress skill-wise at their own pace. “Some players are really passionate about baseball, some know the rules,” Jonathan says. “They’ll say, ‘I want to be the catcher,’ or, ‘I want to play first base.’ We give them the choice to follow the rules they understand and want to follow. Those that don’t have the freedom to just play.”
Riding Toward Life Skills
One person who won’t let kids make up the rules is Johnny Higginson of Shadow Hills Riding Club (SHRC), which includes a riding ring just for kids with special needs. That’s because Higginson, who has more than 40 years of experience with horses and is program director at the P.A.T.H. International Premiere Accredited riding school, uses the horses as tools to help children overcome challenges and develop life skills.
Higginson says he has helped kids learn sounds and eventually speak. One of his riders, a 12-year-old blind girl with a learning disability, went from taking an hour to get dressed in the morning to just 10 minutes. “Because riding develops trunk control and core strength, we were able to get her to not only hold her hands up, as she built a connection with the horse, but she’s now able to communicate better and control herself in social settings, which allows her parents to take her out more and helps her mood and confidence,” he says.
One parent of a 6-year-old Shadow Hills rider with autism says her daughter’s sense of worth has skyrocketed since she began riding. “It shows in her schoolwork, in relationships with friends she’s making, it shows in our home life,” says the mom. “This has given her an outlet for her passion.”
Getting Along Swimmingly
Finding an outlet for your child’s passion is another reason to explore sports programs. Kandis Pulliam, head coach of The Rays swim team at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena, joined the program five years ago and has witnessed amazing transformations in kids with special needs who have found their passion in swimming. One, 18-year-old Logan Clark, who has autism, is now a coach. He started swimming on the team at age 13 and soon began helping out with the younger swimmers. “When I was on the team, it was just swimming, a way for me to go out there and have fun,” he says. “But when I became a coach, being responsible for the kids, it’s really been a blessing and so inspirational in my life.”
The Rays let entire families get in on the action. There are four families that have siblings on the team, and a father-son pairing as well. The program competes in six meets a year, and all swimmers get ribbons, medals, or trophies. The Rays also have awards for best attitude and most improved. But the process of getting kids to compete for those ribbons can still take time. “Some start in our adaptive swim class in 3-to-1 groups, but now we have kids learning backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle and butterfly,” says Pulliam. The process starts slowly and is led by the child’s interests. “For a long time they just let them get comfortable swimming back and forth in the lane,” says one team parent.
The kids certainly benefit from the swimming skills they gain, but the parents of Rays swimmers say the sense of community is the real reward when a child with special needs plays sports. “There’s such an understanding of each child, and it’s such a support system for us parents as well,” says Jeni Ishimoto, who has watched her husband and son swim together on the team for years. Practice is their campfire time to come together, share stories and connect about what they are going through while their children do what they love. Pulliam tries to keep the party going with regular social events, including a Valentine’s Day dance and movie nights for the whole family.
If you’ve been considering getting your child involved in a sports program, know that now is the time, and it’s never too late. Many leagues have no age cap, and some offer scholarships as well. Keep in mind that the point of participating in a sport is to allow your child to find happiness in places where you may not be: on a playground, in a pool, on a trampoline or somewhere else. They need to know what they love apart from you. And, after the diagnosis, and all the tough things that go along with it, you have to find that place for yourself.
All-Abilities Sports Programs
- Basketball Club, Los Angeles, 310-280-0955, www.fcla.org. Friendship Circle of Los Angeles offers social, recreational and educational programs for Jewish boys ages 10-22 with a variety of special needs. $500 per year; scholarships available.
- Challenger Buddy Baseball, Beverly Hills Little League, Beverly Hills, www.bhll.net. Adapted baseball for individuals with special needs of all ages and abilities. $100 registration includes uniform, trophies, yearbook and midSeason Celebration; scholarships available.
- Leaps n Boundz Adaptive Sports and Recreation, various L.A.-area locations, 310-821-0963, www.leapsnboundz.com. Individual and group gymnastics, swimming, ball sports and social skills and behavior therapy for ages 18 months to adult. Camp and regular overnight opportunities available. $37.50, group gymnastics; $70 individual gymnastics. Additional pricing varies.
- Rose Bowl Aquatic Center’s Special Needs Programs, Pasadena, 626-564-0330, www.rosebowlaquatics.org/therapy_special_needs_programs.php. Swimming for people of all abilities ages 3 months-adult and their parents and siblings. Ages 3 months-3 years with parent: $12 per class. Half-hour private lesson: $38. One-hour private lesson: $76. The Rays Swim Team for ages 4 to adult: $50 per month.
- Shadow Hills Riding Club, Sun Valley, 818-875-8322, www.shadowhills-equestriancenter.com. Horsemanship and horseback riding for ages 3 to adult with all abilities including autism, amputation, spinal cord injuries, arthritis, limited verbal, cerebral palsy, developmental disabilities, Down syndrome, emotional disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment, sensory sensitivity, multiple sclerosis, polio, muscular dystrophy and brain damage. $75 per private lesson, $480 per 8-week group session.
Carolyn Richardson has a degree in Physical Education and has coached volleyball, basketball, track-and-field and cross-country programs. She is a mom of three and Assistant Editor at L.A. Parent.