Adaptive soccer offers neurodivergent kids a chance to play

The number of clubs offering adaptive soccer in Vancouver has increased in recent years, but many young athletes with neurodevelopmental or intellectual disabilities are still stuck on waiting lists.


By Roy Fang

Lucas Gates said his mom, like many mothers, was excited to have her daughter Sadie join a soccer team. However, after the first practice session with the team, the mother was pulled aside by the coach.

The coach informed Abbe Gates that her daughter would be a liability because she had a visible disability, down syndrome. Sadie would still be allowed to practise, but would have to sit on the bench when playing against other teams.

Angry at the discrimination that her daughter faced, Gates created Blazin’ Soccer Dogs, a free adaptive soccer league.

That was more than 15 years ago and the organization now has around 100 members and three divisions. Today, for many parents it’s still not easy to find an adaptive soccer group for their kids.

A mother of two neurodivergent children, Sonia Ali, first found the Canucks Autism Network which offers adaptive soccer, the sport her children hoped to play. However, due to the limited spots, Ali had to look elsewhere and eventually found Special Olympics BC.

“I don’t know why that program is not advertised or promoted as it should be,” Ali said, adding that, for many years, she did not know about the program,

“Unfortunately, [Canucks Autism Network] has very limited spots. So it used to be hit and miss whether you can apply,” Ali said.

More training for instructors

Lise Olsen, professor in the School of Nursing at UBC, said organizations rely heavily on volunteers and the pandemic has made it more challenging to find any.

In addition, organizations often lack resources to train volunteers, who many times “might not feel they have enough training or knowledge to support children or youth with NDID [neurodevelopmental or intellectual disabilities].”

Talking about neurodevelopmental or intellectual disabilities, experts refer to a wide range of difficulties ranging from speech impairment, behavioral problems, learning, motor skills, and more.

Olsen’s Kids Action Coaching Approach research project has developed online training modules to help coaches provide and support inclusive programs.

“Children’s needs for support can change over time, they can vary in complexity, they can vary in severity,” Olsen said.

Kids need more friendly competition

Dimity Duckworth, an occupational therapist who works with neurodivergent youth, said there are not enough sports programs for children with developmental coordination disorders, learning disabilities including down syndrome, ADHD, or coordination difficulties.

“It [adaptive soccer] really helps kids to be part of a team to help their self-esteem and confidence,” said Duckworth. Most of the kids she works with cannot handle the anxiety of regular competitions.

At the same time, Duckworth said it is important for adaptive soccer programs to include alternative options for those kids who can learn from friendly competition with other teams. “So that they can expand their interactions … to be with other clubs.”

She said having more clubs would help to find the right balance between the different needs of the children.

“There needs to be more clubs offering leisure and pleasure, which includes kids who have special needs and kids who don’t,” she said.

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