Tennis is a social game that reinforces skills many children on the spectrum find challenging. It offers a give and take rhythm that encourages turn taking, eye contact, focus, and motor skill development. Because children on the autism spectrum may struggle with social interaction, language, compulsive behavior, and restricted interests; having an evidence-based approach when teaching specialized skills is a sure way optimize the learning experience. Patience and lesson plan modification is essential in creating a successful teaching environment. These helpful tips have been proven to assist children on the autism spectrum reach the fullest potential.
Volunteers – Ratio matters. Children with autism may require more focused instruction, so designating two volunteers to work with one student may be necessary. Having one volunteer feed the ball while the other assists with technique can make a world of a difference. Because children with autism sometimes struggle with socialization, it can be very helpful to pair a child with the same volunteers every week to strengthen levels of trust and consistency. Also be sure to have volunteers introduce themselves to the child before every session to lay the foundation for smooth transitions and help the child become familiar with their surroundings.
Equipment – Many children with autism have low muscle tone and therefore it is beneficial to use smaller, lighter racquets as well as low pressure tennis balls. Having a visual schedule on hand will improve transitions within the lesson plan and also help children visualize tasks. Using a line as a place marker on the ground helps children understand where they should stand and ultimately help with their focus.
Communicate – Simplicity is key! Always try to use simple and direct language when teaching. Children with autism often have difficulty with receptive and expressive language and are easily overstimulated by excessive verbal directions. Gaining the child’s attention verbally is important, but eye contact and visual prompting is essential. Using picture schedules to communicate lesson targets and transitional periods will make for an established understanding of plans and expectations. Therefore, modified lesson plans can be beneficial in supporting the child’s attention span and organizational skills.
Physical Prompts – Being hands on with students is imperative in errorless learning. Hand-over-hand assistance can be a defining factor in your student acquiring proper hand placement and racquet skills, especially if they struggle with motor strength and coordination. By gently squeezing the child’s hand when holding the racquet or by physically assisting them to follow through with a stroke, the instructor is able to promote muscle memory while reinforcing proper technique.
Reward and Reinforce – Establish a work-play routine. Children with autism who struggle with social, language, and attentional impairments benefit from periods of structure followed by “brain breaks”, or playtime as a motivational tool. Rewards may look different for each child and can range from playtime with preferred items to running around the court freely. Reinforcers can be established by learning your student’s individual interests and establishing what the student wants to work for at the beginning of the lesson.
The success of techniques, methods of communication, and prompting will vary and are entirely dependent upon each child individually. When teaching children with autism always remember to provide as much praise, attention, and help as possible to reinforce their accomplishments.