Autism and sport: a personal perspective

Daniel Bird is an autistic adult who developed a love of sport as a child, and who now encourages others to take it up. In this Q&A he discusses how he got into sport and why it’s been an integral part of his life since then, both professionally and personally.

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Author: Daniel Bird

Autism and sport: a personal perspective

I’m Dan, 25 years old and I live in Prestwich, Manchester. I was diagnosed with autism at age 4 and I also have a receptive and expressive language disorder.

Throughout the whole of my education I had a statement of special educational needs. As my needs could not be met within the local borough I attended residential school in Derbyshire for 8 years, followed by a specialist college in Birmingham for 3 years. I’ve recently completed University studies in Manchester and gained a First Class Honours degree in Sport Coaching and School Sport. I now work full-time at a specialist school/college as an Activities/Gym Instructor.

Q1: How did you get into sport?

I was the typical loner child, sat at home with computer game consoles (many Mario sport games): I enjoyed my own company. In primary school I was very shy and often got upset when other school kids kept changing the rules in tagging games at break times. I enjoyed rounders because I was good at catching and hitting the ball and the fact that it’s a structured game helped me.

My family took me to disability swimming session every Sunday afternoon for several years. They taught me how to swim and as I got better I really enjoyed swimming lengths really fast.

I received a swing ball set for the garden and really enjoyed the endless feeling of hitting the swing-ball very quickly back and forth with a racket on my own. I progressed to playing tennis with my dad in the park and joined a local tennis club which helped to build my social confidence. I later competed in three annual under 17’s tennis club singles tournament (twice finalist runner-up and once overall winner).

I discovered long distance running when I was 15 years old having been encouraged by school staff to participate in weekly running club sessions with Matlock Athletic Club. Throughout the year I race competitively for Swinton Running Club ranging from 5K’s, 10K’s, half and full marathons. In the last 4 years I have completed 6 full marathons all in under 3 hours (with a personal best of 2:47 hours).

Q2: Which sports do you enjoy, and why?

I enjoy racket sports like tennis, badminton and squash (I prefer singles) because they are fast sports that challenge your hand to eye coordination, and I like the tactical aspect of trying to beat your opponent.

My favourite sport is running because it is an individual discipline where you can set many personal challenges to achieve, but I also enjoy the social part of running with the great friends I have made through the club. This will be the second year that I have won the Club Championship trophy.

Q3: How has engaging in sport been beneficial to you?

Summer holidays were difficult for me as I had no local friends due to attending residential school. I tried volunteering at the age of 15 as an assistant coach at multi-sport camps for Bury Council’s Physical and Activity Service. I gained lots of confidence meeting new people and had just as much fun as the kids, so I continued volunteering for another 7 years.

I used my volunteer credits to access more coach development courses, enabling me to develop my knowledge and then pursue a career in sport.

Q4: Why you think sport may be beneficial for other autistic people?

I believe engaging in physical activity improves our physical and mental well-being. In a supportive environment, inclusive/team sports could help autistic people become more confident and help develop their social skills. Furthermore it can relieve stress and reduce anxiety, which could possibly reduce the chance of challenging behaviour.

Q5: Advice for sport professionals working with autistic children/young people

My advice is that every autistic person is different and unique in their own way, so take some time to get to know the individual and appreciate their needs:

  • awareness of the person’s level of communication
  • style of learning
  • any sensory needs
  • triggers and behaviours.

Provide clear and concise instructions and visual demonstrations at the start. During the sessions be patient and prepared to adapt and progress your sessions gradually. Lastly your sessions should be fun, positive, creative and inclusive with everyone.

Q6: What opportunities have you had through sport?

Through my passion and involvement with sport in the community I have been fortunate enough to have gained recognition for a number of my achievements. I was nominated for ‘Volunteer of the Year’ in 2008 & 2012 for Bury. At the annual Bury Sports Awards, I received the Prestwich Special Recognition Award in 2013 and I’ve also been awarded the ‘Disabled Sports Achiever of the Year’ in 2012, 2014 and 2015.

My greatest honours have been:

  • being selected as a London 2012 Olympic Torch Bearer
  • meeting various Olympic and Paralympic athletes
  • in 2013 being chosen as Community Games ‘Shining Light’
  • meeting Lord Sebastian Coe
  • in 2015 awarded Higher Education Student of the Year
  • in 2016 awarded Outstanding Achievement Award at Student Excellence Awards during the Graduation Ceremony

Sport has hugely benefited my life. It helps me feel healthy and more confident to socialise with people with similar interests to me, and it has enabled me to fulfil a rewarding sporting career to inspire young disabled people to enjoy physical activity as much as I do.

Further information

Active for Autism

Top 5 autism tips for professionals: engaging autistic people in sport

Date added: 5 December 2016