Why Your Special Needs Child Should Play Sports, by Andi Sligh

I know how scared you are. 

When it comes to signing your special needs child up for sports, you find yourself imagining your physically disabled child falling, or drowning, or being bullied, or <insert some other worst case scenario here>. You know your child won’t be able to run as fast, or swim as well, or hit as hard, or keep up with the other kids. Or maybe you have a child who has autism or is intellectually disabled. You’re afraid they won’t understand the game, or they won’t be understood, or they will be rejected because they are too immature or struggle socially or have limited speech-language capability. Maybe, you think, some kids just aren’t meant to play sports. But while it’s true that not every child can do sports, most can. Even those with significant disabilities.

In the Vatican document “Giving the Best of Yourself: A Document on the Christian Perspective on Sport and the Human Person,” released in 2018,  the Church tells us:

“Sport can offer us a chance to take part in beautiful moments, or to see these take place. In this way, sport has the potential to remind us that beauty is one of the ways we can encounter God.” The document goes on to explain the significance of sports and the lessons they can teach us – perseverance, fairness, equality, creativity, cooperation, sacrifice, and courage, to name just a few.

My daughter, Sarah Kate, has moderate cerebral palsy and a can-do attitude. She announced when she was seven that she wanted to be on the swim team. She had just learned to swim the summer before but, on the advice of the coach who was her P.E. teacher and a member of our parish, we let her try it. She thrived and she loved it. It was hard for us to watch – she wasn’t just slow, she was painfully slow, but she didn’t mind. She just kept trying to swim faster than herself. Eventually, she became a high school state champion swimmer, earned multiple scholarships for college, and qualified for the US Paralympics National Championship – all because of swimming.

Later, she wanted to try softball. She wasn’t very good at it, but there were some things she did very well. In 10U when the girls first started pitching and mostly threw junk, she would never swing at bad pitches like the able-bodied players did because her body instinctively knew that swinging too low or too high or too far outside would cause her to fall – she got walked a lot while her able-bodied teammates struck out. In 8U, her team made it to the championship final and the coach put her at catcher – a strategic choice because it slowed the game down when they were up… and they won. She wasn’t a token, but a valued member of the team.

Today, she’s a junior in college and competes on her university’s wheelchair tennis team. She’s traveled all over the country, meeting other people like her with physical limitations – a priceless opportunity for someone who always stood out, whether she wanted to or not.

After our positive experiences with swimming, I was all in to have my son, Nathan, try sports, too. He played t-ball for five years – again, because the person in charge said, “Sure! Come on in!” – and he loved it. He never quite “got” the urgency of the game, but he did get pretty good at running, hitting, and catching. It took him a long time to learn how to swim, but once he figured it out I put him on the summer swim team – the same team where his sister started (by then, she was one of the coaches).

In swimming, he found his competitive drive…and his body changed. Like many people with Down syndrome, Nathan always had a “fuller” figure, but once he started swimming year round he slimmed down and his muscles developed in ways I didn’t think were possible. Now, at almost fourteen, he swims with typical kids – many of whom are superstars – so he’s never a top finisher, but like his sister, he swims against himself. He also plays tennis. He started with an adaptive tennis program but now also plays with typical kids. I joined a beginner tennis class so I can play with him.

In October, he attended the USA Down Syndrome Swimming national team camp for the first time. He was the youngest swimmer there, barely making the age cut, and many of the other swimmers were on the USA National Team, having competed internationally. All of the athletes had Down syndrome, of course, but the difference between them and many of the people we’ve met with Down syndrome over the years was stark. They were outgoing, physically fit, and they shared a level of camaraderie that is hard to describe. Sports did that.

Physical therapy is important, and I would never suggest otherwise. Both of my kids had physical therapy – in Sarah Kate’s case, for many years – but PT is focused on the mechanics of the body. Physical therapy may have taught my daughter about perseverance, but it didn’t bring her friends or teach her about cooperation or fairness, and it wasn’t something she chose to do because she loved it. Sports did those things.

Today there are more opportunities than ever before for our kids to participate in sports. Depending on your child’s age and limitations, you may want to choose typical sports through a rec league, adaptive leagues (like Miracle League or Special Olympics), or an adaptive sport (like wheelchair tennis, basketball, etc.) Our family has, at various times, done all three.

If you aren’t yet convinced, you may be thinking that my children are exceptional, or that their challenges aren’t as significant as your child’s challenges. As the mom who goes to all of the sporting activities, I want to assure you that your child can do sports, too. We’ve met a swimmer with no legs and only one arm. We’ve met wheelchair tennis players in power chairs whose grip was so poor their racket must be taped to their hand. My children have been in the pool alongside swimmers with autism, missing limbs, paralysis, and profound physical disabilities. Returning to that quote from Giving the Best of Yourself:

“Sport can offer us a chance to take part in beautiful moments, or to see these take place. In this way, sport has the potential to remind us that beauty is one of the ways we can encounter God.”

I’ve seen so many of these beautiful moments take place over the years, and I want you and your child to experience them, too. If the Church sees value in sports, we should give our children the opportunity to do them.

Andi Sligh is a wife and mother of two children with disabilities and three dogs. She is a lifelong Alabamian, Dr. Pepper addict, Catholic convert, and former engineer who rediscovered a love of writing when she became a mom. You can find more of her writing at https://andisligh.com/

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