For all children, participation and inclusion in community activities and in physical activity has many benefits. However, in general, children on the autism spectrum are less physically active and have lower rates of community participation compared to non-autistic children. Being ‘different’ can lead to children on the autism spectrum and their families being left out of mainstream community-based physical activity programs, such as sporting clubs.
In Australia, one very popular community-based weekly physical activity program is Nippers, which is provided each summer by surf lifesaving clubs at beaches across Australia. In 2017 Aspect Practice received funding to provide a program of support to surf lifesaving clubs in New South Wales and Queensland so that they could run Nippers sessions during the 2017-2018 summer that were adapted to be inclusive of children on the autism spectrum. This was called the Inclusive Beaches project.
What would an adapted program of Nippers need to provide so that children on the autism spectrum and their families could take part, feel included and have a good time? What support would clubs need?
To design the program of support, we needed to find out what made it either easier or more difficult for a child on the autism spectrum to enjoy, take part in and feel included at Nippers. To do this, we surveyed over 100 families across Australia with children on the autism spectrum about their experiences and perceptions of their child taking part in Nippers. This included families whose autistic child had attended Nippers, and those whose autistic child had not attended Nippers.
What we learnt
The research found that there were four factors that parents thought would make it either easier or more difficult for their child to participate in and feel included at Nippers:
- How well the program catered to their child’s autistic ways of being
- Whether the emphasis was on competition and pressure to perform, or on having a good time, and doing your best and taking part
- The understanding and support shown by others, including club personnel and other parents
- The additional supports that were available for their child.
Parents identified a range of program features and adaptations that could facilitate the participation and inclusion of their child, and commented in particular on the need for club personnel to receive training so that they had a sound understanding of autism and how to support and instruct autistic children; some parents suggested specialist Nippers programs for autistic children.
The extent of the barriers to participation and inclusion that we identified in this research demonstrated the significant needs of autistic children to have access to organised, community-based recreational activities that have been adapted to be inclusive of autistic children, and that this need may be largely unmet.
Making a difference
Aspect Practice has used the findings of this research to develop a range of methods and resources to guide clubs in adapting their Nippers sessions to make it easier for children on the autism spectrum to enjoy, take part in and feel included at the sessions. The Inclusive Beaches project team then also provided the participating clubs with training in autism-inclusive practice and supported the clubs to run adapted sessions of inclusive Nippers for children with special needs, including children on the autism spectrum.
We have also evaluated these Inclusive Beaches activities. This evaluation found that using simple adaptions and training that was evidenced by research was effective in making it easier for children on the autism spectrum to enjoy, take part in and feel included at Nippers, and that this approach could also be applied to many different community settings. The research highlighted two key factors for success in providing inclusive programs: firstly, the attitudes, knowledge and skills of personnel delivering the program; and secondly, adapted programs may require more resources and staffing than is provided in mainstream programs.
So, with the information provided by this research, surf live saving clubs across Australia now have access to a set of resources they can use to run Nippers sessions that are inclusive for children on the autism spectrum, developed by Aspect Practice.
Aspect research team
Kaaren Haas, ARCAP (Lead researcher)
Tom Tutton, Aspect Practice
Laura Catherall, Aspect Practice
Surf Life Saving Australia
The Inclusive Beaches program was funded by an Information, Linkages and Capacity Building (ILC) National Readiness Grant, through the Australian Government’s National Disability insurance Scheme.