Experts say special sports and recreation programs help children and adults with autism socially as well as physically.
Andres Zamora dribbled a soccer ball left and then right between two cones. He approached an empty net, and with a Bom Bom Bum lollipop hanging from his mouth, kicked and scored — actions that a year ago would have required his dad’s close assistance.
“Last year, he wasn’t able to do what he’s doing now,” said Mario Zamora, who can now watch from the sideline as his son plays.
At age 7, Andres is honing his fútbol skills at Coral Estates Park in West Miami-Dade, where every Saturday for eight weeks up to three dozen kids and teenagers practice dribbling, passing and scoring. But there’s a larger goal for these kids, all of whom have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Shoot for the Goal, a Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation soccer program, is also about socializing, focusing, exercising outdoors and following instructions, all of which can prove difficult for children with autism.
“This is fantastic,” said Carlos Tellez, whose 8-year-old daughter, Natalie, scampered on a miniature field tapping at a ball with her pink shoes.
When it came time to kick goals, she swung her leg hesitantly at the five balls lined up in front of the goal. On her second go-around, after waiting her turn in line with her mom, Natalie wound up and punted them a little harder into the net.
“They should have more of these,” said Tellez.
More children are being diagnosed with autism, a spectrum of neurological disorders that can affect the way a person communicates, interacts, behaves and learns in ways mild to severe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in 88 people is affected.
And with a growing demand for services such as sports and recreation, local government, businesses and philanthropic agencies are doing their best to keep up, but it’s a struggle.
Miami-Dade Parks, which has offered programs for the special needs community since the 1970s, recently began offering classes specifically for children with autism through its Disability Services Programs.
Shoot for the Goal, part of an autism sports program that began three years ago with just 20 kids, is now part of a seven-month-long series. This year, the program, which caters to groups of kids from 6 to 18, also includes basketball, baseball and swimming.
Arlene Bouza-Jou, who runs the program, expects large numbers this year. Last year, she had 40 kids enrolled during the entire program. Just for soccer, she already has 32.
The children and teenagers who attend range in severity of autism. Some are higher functioning, or may be on the cusp of the autism spectrum, and are able to play on their own. Others don’t speak, and may need help or constant coaxing to dribble down the field or continue kicking goals.
“I see kids that are coming who have never done any sports, don’t like to be outside, do not socialize or haven’t learned how to socialize, and they’re learning these skills,” Bouza-Jou said. “These are little things that a child with autism may never do if they’re not exposed to it or taught. In their own way, and if you let them have their pace to learn it, you see it right there.”
Bouza-Jou also runs the TOPSoccer Program at Coral Estates Park, which integrates young children with autism and “typical” kids.
Other organizations are also pitching in with autism-specific sports programs.
D Amor Foundation, a Kendall-based, philanthropic group founded this year by the parent of an autistic child, provides scholarships for soccer, taekwondo and horseback riding. There are also surfing sessions on South Beach held by the UM-NSU CARD, a joint autism outreach and support program through the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
And the Good Hope Equestrian Center, a not-for-profit organization that has a 20-acre ranch in Southwest Miami-Dade, offers individual and group horseback riding sessions for children and adults with autism. The organization participated in a 2008 study by the University of Miami that found evidence that horseback riding was beneficial to people with autism.
Michael Alessandri, executive director of CARD and a clinical professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Miami, said the need for services that are tailored to people with autism is clear. He said CARD has 7,000 clients from Key West to the Broward County line registered in its database, more than 1,100 of which are older than 21.
Alessandri said sports and recreational programs have a number of benefits for kids and adults on the autism spectrum. While there are obvious physical benefits of exercise that apply to anyone, activity becomes more important because people with autism often tend to avoid physical activity.
Alessandri said avoiding exercise can be due to complex sensory issues that might include an aversion to sweat, heat or sunlight, and difficulties with coordination and socializing. He also said anxiety plays a major role, as well as medications that cause patients to gain weight or become tired.
All these issues, require planning and trained personnel, and can make hosting successful sports programs difficult, Alessandri said. And as people with autism grow older, programs become fewer in number.
“We’re kind of in an impossible situation where we have so many kids with so many needs,” he said. “But we don’t have the resources.”
Alessandri said the more programs available, the better, as they bring kids and adults with autism into social situations.
“The one thing that’s a bit of a myth, is people have this idea that because people with autism tend not to be social they don’t desire friendships or social relationships,” Alessandri said. “Those who are higher functioning, they will tell you they’re lonely and sad and want to be included and want to feel special.”
Henry Haitz, who was at Coral Estates Park on a recent Saturday with his 15-year-old stepson Henry Porto, put it this way:
“These guys just have to work way harder to do this.”
Take Jimmy Billardon, a lanky 14-year-old Miami Beach Senior High student who circled the soccer field, kicking a ball with a size-13 shoe.
Billardon loves sports like swimming and enjoys structure, said his mother, Sally. But he doesn’t enjoy speaking so much.
So she found that playing soccer allowed him to be active and social and busy on Saturdays, without having to worry so much about carrying on a conversation.
“This has always helped him,” she said. “He likes sports because it builds his self-confidence. He can speak but he doesn’t like it, so he can do this without all that fancy communication.”
At the end of soccer practice for children 6 to 11, Natalie Tellez, Andres Zamora and another half dozen kids gathered together, put their hands in a pile and shouted “Goooooooo Team!”
Natalie looked up: “I did it!”