My name's Tim. This is my story.
I have autism and a intellectual disability.
I've been playing football last 11 years. My position is wing and forward.
A real difficulty is the team players don't understand my speech at times. I really like at footy you have a good experience. I like that you play friends as a team. And like the skills too. Coach is teaching me how to kick a ball properly.
My coach helped me to don't scared of the ball, just pick up and handball or kick it.
My favourite memory is playing a Grand Final. 23 years ago, I won the Grand Final against Williamstown. I won the premiership. I kicked a match-winning goal and won the Grand Final, won the premiership.
This is my story, but everyone's story will be different.
In the next section, you will learn tips for how to support young people with intellectual disability to play footy. For example, you could break down an activity into small parts, the first few times it is played, so all players have time to learn.
What is intellectual disability?
Young people with intellectual disability typically have differences in thinking skills, including reasoning, planning, attention, problem solving, and judgement. They may also need more support with academic and everyday skills, such as reading, writing, and telling the time.
They may need support with communicating, socialising, and understanding others’ body language (eg. facial expression, gestures). Some young people with intellectual disability may understand instructions best when information is clear, brief, repeated and supported with visuals.
By providing a safe and supportive environment, you can help keep young people with intellectual disability engaged and safe. With a little planning, you can ensure they have enriching opportunities to make friends, learn new skills and participate in the footy fun.
What might this look like on the footy field?
During your planned footy activities, players with intellectual disability may need extra time and support when learning new skills. Be mindful of how you communicate instructions. Some players will learn best if information is broken up into smaller parts, rather than given all at once.
Some may need support with attention (eg. they may be very active) and concentration. Other players with intellectual disability may feel anxious or sad, or seem restless, or distracted at footy. They may need support to regulate their emotions and behaviours. Some players may not want to participate at times and may tire easily.
Some players with intellectual disability may be very social and friendly, and like talking and spending time with other people. Some might stand close or be over-familiar with people, and some might like to hug others. It can be helpful to be clear about what is appropriate when talking and interacting with others. For example, tell players that it is more appropriate to give a high-five than a hug at footy.
Strategies and tips
Before the session
Use a visual schedule that players can see at all times so they know what is coming up. This may support transitions from one activity to the next. You could use a whiteboard or flipchart.
Provide predictability by having a consistent routine at each session.
Talking to parents can help you understand the best way to communicate and work with their child. Parents can help you understand their child’s unique strengths and areas they may need more help. Make sure you check if the player is happy for you to ask their parent. Some players (eg. young players) might be okay with this, but others (eg. older players) might not. See the Getting to know your Auskicker page for some example questions you could ask, if it’s okay with the player.
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.
During the session
Minimising background noise and distractions while giving instructions can help all players hear and focus on the coach. You might need to face the group away from distractions behind you (like another game or people). Also try to ensure that players aren’t looking into the sun.
Limit the amount of information given at once. Use simple instructions and consider breaking down an activity into smaller parts. Teach one part at a time and ensure players understand each part before moving on. Giving instructions multiple times as well as reminders may help players remember how things are done.
Show the young person how to do the skill or activity. Consider using a flip chart for visual instructions when you coach. This may help players understand how to do the task. If it’s okay with the young person, have someone help guide their movement.
Give positive feedback to players. Make sure you are specific about what the player has done well.
*We acknowledge that some people prefer to avoid the use of rewards to support young people’s behaviour. However, there is evidence to suggest that rewards can support young people’s motivation to play sport. We use the term ‘reward’ to refer to a wide range of rewarding activities to acknowledge effort, not just tangible items such as prizes.
Slow down an activity the first few times it is played so players have time to learn. For example, encourage walking rather than running.
Some players might benefit from extra time and practise to learn skills, such as kicking, catching or running. If players are engaged in the activity, allow them to do more repetitions to learn the skill if needed. Move to new, more complex skills once the player has mastered the previous skill.
Shortening activities may help some young people to stay focused on the activity while it is being played.
Some players might feel more comfortable in smaller groups.
Matching players at the same skill level in small groups may help young people feel at ease and confident in their abilities.
- Allow a player to join the group in their own time. This may not be at the start of an activity.
If a player needs support coordinating their movements (eg. for a punt kick), let them kick the ball off the ground, or practise kicking the ball off a stand.
Allow players to use their own or their preferred equipment if they wish to. This may be a particular-coloured football that they feel attached to.
Some players may feel uncomfortable getting wet and muddy. Let them wear gloves, for example, and gradually become confident touching the football.
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. They should be supported in their preferences.
Observe any signs of emotional or behavioural reactions (eg. anxiety and refer to the strategies suggested for this.
A discreet and brief chat post session with a young person with intellectual disability and their family can help identify what activities they enjoyed, and whether some activities can be further modified for next time.
Things to consider
Just because a young person needs support with talking or communicating does not mean that they need support with thinking or learning. As a coach, learning how to communicate most effectively with a young person is important, so that everyone has the same opportunities to participate and have fun.
If you are coaching a young person with intellectual disability, you may also be interested in reading about:
Footy stories are a great way to assist young people with intellectual disability 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 (2020-2021) grant. We aim to use language that is respectful to everyone.
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