High School Sports Options for Teens with Autism

Unified sports are not integrated sports, and I consider that to be a good thing.  My son with Autism LOVES playing basketball and this program created an opportunity for him.

In middle school, my son was in a public school that did a pretty good job with integrating the kids with special needs.  They had 3 teams – the A Team, B Team and C Team.  My son was on the C Team.  And the typical kids had volunteered to help out on that team while also playing on the A or B teams.  My son absolutely loved playing on the team.  As a parent, it was a joy to watch him play.  He gained confidence by being on the team and I remember his teachers commenting on how they saw that confidence showing up in the classroom.

When we hit high school, playing on the basketball team was not an option.  I had several people suggest that my son be “a manager” for the team.  I looked into this but it appeared that my son would get to watch the other kids play while he gathered up basketballs for the players.  That seemed like it would be torture for a kid who wanted to play.

Due to many other reasons, we moved our son out of this high school.  He now attends a school targeted for kids on the spectrum but the school is so small they don’t have a basketball team.  Instead, they partnered with a public high school down the street who  partnered with Special Olympics Washington.  THIS would be our son’s opportunity to play basketball again.

The team was NOT part of the typical high school team.  And that was a blessing.  Why?  My son still has speech therapy, ABA therapy and music lessons.  With a typical high school team, practice is usually 5-6 days per week plus games.  While I want my son to have the opportunity to play a sport that he loves and get the social opportunities that go with that, it must be balanced against these other very important activities.  This special team had practice 2 days a week with tournaments every Saturday.  It worked into our schedule very well.

At the end of the season, the public high school did something that I thought was a wonderful approach to integration.  They had one game where the band and the cheerleaders were there.  They had posters all over the school encouraging all of the kids to come out and support the Unified Sports Basketball team.


We attended the game and had many friends and extended family join us.  As I had watched the Saturday games, they were special.  And it was wonderful to see our family members get to experience this.

The team is made up of teens on the Autism spectrum, teens with other disabilities and then kids who are volunteers.  These volunteers are often siblings or teens looking for community service opportunities.  The volunteers help keep the game moving.  It’s obvious the (volunteer) coaches have taught the players the basics of passing the ball and shooting.  The thing that is special about these games is that every time a player is about to shoot a basket, everyone in the stands, from both teams, is rooting for a basket to be made.

The first few games, as I watched, I would really need to fight back the tears.  The volunteers are so caring as they help the teens who need a lot fo support.  Other players are really strong and have a platform to excel. The players were having so much fun.  The look on my son’s face could only be described one way: pure joy.

After the game at the high school, they had a dance.  This dance was mostly attended just by kids on the team and friends and family.  These teens are in a different place socially.  This dance is likely a lot more fun than a dance that is attended by all of the high school students.  Separate, not integrated, but that is really the right thing to do in this case.

After the season was over, my son texted me (which is the primary way he communicates with me) along with a picture of his basketball team:

I felt kind of sad when basketball is over.  I might miss them from basketball. 😦

An opportunity to play a sport he loves.  An opportunity to make friends that he can relate to at his level and on his terms.  Thank you to Special Olympics Washington as well as to this public high school that recognizes that they need to create these opportunities for these teens when full integration just isn’t appropriate.

The Most Important 20 Minutes of the Day

My son had a basketball game today for his middle school team.  He’s on the C team (which comes after the B team which comes after  the A team) so we’re not talking a glamorous, high profile game.  But when I walked into the door, saw his face light up and then proceeded to witness his game and his constant looking over at me, I knew the 20 minutes of play time he got today were the most important 20 minutes of my day.

For working parents, being able to attend these events is hard.  Looking around today, there weren’t that many parents at the game. I’m sure every parent who was NOT in attendance had very good reasons and it had ZERO reflection on how much they love their child.

My son has Autism so communication, verbal communication, is really hard.  He doesn’t like to have conversations.  He’s not capable of sharing his feelings verbally.  When I try to tell him how I feel about him, he doesn’t want to have that conversation either.  As I’m connecting with more and more parents of typical kids, I’ve learned that my teen with Autism isn’t so different than a typical teenage boy.  My ACTIONS need to be the way I tell him how much I care about him.  Today, I was able to tell him I love him by attending his game.  And he was able to tell me that he’s glad I’m his mom.

But making this 20 minutes happen took a lot of planning and preparation.  I’m hoping that sharing how I accomplished this helps another parent get the same 20 minutes I got today.

Block Your Calendar

When I got the basketball schedule, I added the games to my work calendar along with travel time.  This way, when others are trying to schedule time with me, they know that I’m busy during this time so they can find a better time that works for both of us.

Set Expectations

I’ve let my manager and my team know that attending these games is important to me.  I try to structure my work so it’s about what I’m delivering each week rather than how much time I spend at the office.  This helps.  I set goals based on a full workload for the week and then juggle the time as necessary to meet all of my commitments for both work and home.

Carve Out Time

Even when you block your calendar and set expectations, it’s still hard to find the time to do it all.  Sometimes I get up early so I can start on my work day earlier.  Commute time takes up at least 45 minutes each way.  Today, I worked from home and got 90 minutes back.  I got my full workday in AND made it to the game.  I also reduced travel time by staying closer to home for the day.

It Goes Both Ways

Often, spending time at a school event in the afternoon means I need to focus on work in the evening–and miss that time with my family.  I try to use this to teach my kids about trade offs and balance.  I want them to be hard workers when they have jobs.  I want them to see that when I leave work early, that time needs to be made up somewhere.  It’s a good lesson to teach them.

Let’s face it, we’re all very busy.  It’s easy for the pressures of work, meetings, deadlines and commuting to cause us to miss opportunities to really connect with our kids.  But with a little planning and preparation, we’ve got a better chance of catching some of the precious moments before we lose track of where all our time went and our kids grow up faster than we could have ever imagined.