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.
Autism is an ever-evolving thing. For everyone that has autism, it's different in every one of us. The similarities, though, is that we don't just see the world differently. We think, feel, all the senses of the world differently, 'cause it affects our senses. So we have sensitivity to sensory, that's like light, there's touch, sound. And we can be, at different times, seeking that stimulation, or it could be too much and we're avoiding that stimulation.
When I was playing for Essendon, I would desensitise myself before the game. I really struggled with mud, so I would be seen as the most hydrated person 'cause I would always say yes to the water umpire to wash my hands beforehand 'cause I hate the feeling of dry mud on my hands.
Autism doesn't mean that I don't want friends. Autism means that it's difficult to make friends. And when I've had experiences where it's been unsafe for me to put myself out there 'cause I've been excluded or bullied, that's when I'm gonna withdraw.
There's a lot of things that are misunderstood about autism. There's a lot of things that are said about us, such as, like, it's bad parenting or that we're from another planet. Really, the only people that can actually explain what it's like to live with autism, what autism is, is the person. If it was a culture thing and it was seen as rude to look at someone in the eye, it was seen as rude to be sarcastic, all that sort of stuff, I wouldn't actually struggle and need an interpretation.
"Stimming" is a slang for us. It's short for self-stimulation. It is either repetitive words or repetitive movements for self-stimulation. It's the same as what someone else might do when they're sitting down and they're jiggling their leg. But for us, people with ADHD and autism, we have lower registration in our body. So we need more of the movement, more of that vestibular input, to be able to regulate ourselves.
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.
Everyone's experience of autism is different, and in saying that, my experience of autism at the beginning of the day, to the middle of the day, to the end of the day is different. As my energy goes down, it becomes more difficult.
I was taught to be ashamed of my differences. I didn't wanna hear about autism and I had a code word for it whenever it was brought up. Since then, I've identified proudly as someone who's been on the autism spectrum, and I've also used my advocacy to try to shift the way we perceive someone when they say that they're autistic.
So I also say I'm autistic. But it's really important when you're speaking about someone or speaking to someone who has autism, that you mirror how they identify, whether it's "aspie", person with autism, autistic, on the spectrum, all those things, even just using their name 'cause we are a person, that's really important. If you're not sure how the person identifies, just ask them. And also check if they're younger and the parent is someone that you have contact with, just check, 'cause they might not even know that they have that diagnosis. So, first check and definitely ask the person how they choose to identify.
I think what I'd tell coaches who are at grassroots is the approach that works for us and for everyone with different support requirements is actually just good coaching practice.
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 autism to participate at footy. For example, you could use a visual timetable for activities to support players to know the structure of the session.
What is 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.
What might this look like on the footy field?
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.
Strategies and Tips
- Provide predictability: 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.
- Provide structure: 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 alternate 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.
- 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.
- Check in with the young person and their family: 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.
Things to consider
Some autistic people can experience anxiety or worry. Please refer to our additional strategies and tips for Anxiety to help them enjoy being on the footy field.
If you are coaching a young person on the autism spectrum, you may also be interested in reading about:
Footy stories are a great way to assist young people on the autism spectrum to become familiar with the wonderful world of footy. You can find all of our footy stories on the Parent Information Page.
If you would like further information and resources, you can visit play.afl/coach/. You can also learn more about how to be an inclusive coach by completing the AllPlay Footy Disability Inclusion Coaching Course. This course provides you with tools and resources for creating inclusive environments at footy. Simply create an account or login to your existing profile to enrol in the course!
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.
TYPES OF DISABILITIES
Learn about physical disability and how to adapt your coaching to ensure players with physical disability can join in the fun at footy.
Learn about intellectual disability and how to adapt your coaching to ensure players with intellectual disability can join in the fun at footy.
Learn about Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) and how to adapt your coaching to ensure players with DCD can join in the fun at footy