Be aware that an intellectual disability may not be apparent. Before you submit a child to unrealistic expectations for them, check their paperwork or ask their parents if you have concerns. Consider how your information is presented during practice, and provide alternate formats if necessary. Be sure to provide all of your athletes sufficient time to learn each new drill or activity. Some athletes may be significantly slower learners than others, so multiple repetitions may be required. Along those same lines, make sure that they fully understand the task you have asked them to complete. They may have a desire to please you and therefore say yes, or not acknowledge that they do not understand the drill or activity. Some athletes may also demonstrate a poor kinesthetic sense. This could create problems with their balance and gait, particularly when performing more advanced drills.
Practice Design Points for Athletes with Intellectual Disabilities
Athletes with an intellectual disability, particularly those with autism, may flourish in a predictable environment. Therefore, make your practices as predictable as possible. One example might be to start every practice with a warm up that consists of the same count and rep of the same exercises, move into the practice and then cool down with an equally predictable cool down routine. It may also help to post a schedule on the wall for the day's practice. That way they can look at the schedule whenever they get antsy and see what's coming next. It may also help take some of the anxiety out of the practice.
A large field space can be very overwhelming for certain athletes. To avoid this, try dividing the field up by using different stations for each drill or activity. Always have the warm up and cool down in the same area of the field.
The main objective is for the athlete to be active. Many times when an athlete gets overwhelmed they have to remove themselves from the overstimulating environment to somewhere they consider a safe place. Your object should be to make that "safe place" somewhere that includes physical activity, such as running laps or doing stretches. That way, regardless of the activity you are doing in practice that day, whenever the athlete feels overwhelmed they do not simply sit out and not get any physical activity at that point.
For your athletes with intellectual disabilities, get them familiar with "their color." This will help them to quickly identify where they belong and what they should be doing and help decrease some of their anxiety. Color coding can work for equipment (ex: use the yellow balls), stations (ex: go to the orange station), directional movement (ex: follow the red cones), etc.
There may be times when it is the least restrictive environment for the child to succeed to be working one on one with his paraprofessional. But if your practice is structured properly, this does not have to be the entire practice time. Have the athlete go through the warm up and the stations and then spend time with his or her paraprofessional while the rest of the team completes other drills and activities, particularly if those drills or activities would provide stimulation overload for the athlete.
Always be prepared with an appropriate award system. Make sure these rewards still work toward your end goal. Maybe their reward for trying a new or difficult drill or one that is not on the list for the day because you had to improvise on the spot, is to be able to do a drill or activity that they enjoy doing after they have tried the new activity for a sufficient amount of time.
By keeping these points in mind, coaches, parents, and teammates can work together to ensure that all athletes have the opportunity to participate in baseball in a safe, respectful and positive environment.
For more information and resources for the community of athletes with a disability, please visit NCHPAD at www.nchpad.org.