“I guess I’m done for the day because I’m stupid” or: How not to coach swimming

Nearly a year ago to the day I blogged about my frustration with my son’s swim coach. To wit: I had written in advance to request simple accommodations and to give the coaching team advance information about my son’s preferences. The coach took no notice of the requests, assigned him a very strict assistant coach, and he was kicked out of the pool on the first day. It was a struggle to get him back to the pool the next day, but I’ll give the coach credit: after I sent her a very irritated follow-up message, she re-assigned him. It took a week, but we finally landed with a Wonderful Assistant Coach who worked with him for the rest of the season. He “graduated” from the first level of swim team and over the winter looked forward to moving up to the next level in the swim team.

We had our back-to-season parent meeting over a month ago. I spoke with the head coach in charge of my son’s new level at the meeting. Told him straight-up: my son is autistic; he needs accommodations. What’s the best way to communicate with you about this?” He told me to email him. Swim season started 2 weeks ago, and a few days before the season started I sent the requested email. In case this might be helpful for other parents who are seeking accommodations for their kids outside of school, I’ll share the email with redacted names here. I also want to share this because it’s important for the world to know that “accommodations” are not difficult. I’m not asking for the moon.

“Dear Coach [Name Redacted],

I’m writing to give you some advance information about one of your new polliwogs. [My son] is autistic. Certain things are easy for him; others are not, and some of those “not” issues could very well come up in practice, especially in the first couple of weeks. I’m copying Coach [Other Name Redacted] so she can share anything she might remember about working with [my son]. [Wonderful Assistant Coach] was his assistant coach and was an excellent fit; she, too, will be a good source of information. I hope you can share this information with whatever assistant coaches will work with him. It’s been our experience that he struggles to adapt to new activities but does well / better once he’s used to the environment. So the first week is crucial, which is why I am giving you this information up front.

My son is very intelligent and has a wacky sense of humor. He’s funny and silly, and can come across as disrespectful, especially to people who don’t do silly / funny / sarcastic as much. But he lives for word play. When / if he pushes back about anything, the best way to diffuse him is with humor.

He’s completely uninterested in competing, so this team is all about the love of swimming for him. He shuts down in the face of everything competitive. That may change, but that’s where we are now. We do plan to come to meets this summer so he can gradually become accustomed to what that’s all about.

He sometimes needs repeated directions; verbal directions are hard to process–especially when he’s getting so much additional sensory information–and as a result he can appear like he’s not trying or is deliberately trying to go against instructions. In truth, it can take time for him to process some things. But once he has them in his body, he remembers.

He is very uncomfortable when people touch him, except for close family members. Even I have to ask before hugging, etc. We realize that coaches will occasionally need to guide his body. We found last year that this works best by first asking him before touching / guiding, and if he’s uncomfortable, demonstrating instead until he’s

Transitions are difficult. I’m glad you’ve placed him in the final practice session of the day for because it’s often difficult for him to get out of the pool at the end of his time slot. Perhaps we can continue to use this time strategy as the season progresses?

When he is stressed / anxious, his reaction is opposition. There may very well be times when he simply needs to be done early, and that’s fine from my perspective. We’re encouraging him to advocate for his needs so he can learn to soothe himself before blowing up. If he asks for a break, he really does need a break. He’ll rejoin when he can.

I’m always conflicted about sending these messages in advance because they paint my kid as a problem child. But I’m a special education advocate as well as a Mom, and we’re very pro-neurodiversity in our family. We prefer to ask for the necessary accommodations up front. My son is, in fact, very open about being autistic and is proud of who he is. He’s the kind of kid who can grow up to be a world changer;
he’s got just that kind of brain, creativity, and hyper focus when he needs it. He’s hilarious and well-read and sees metaphors everywhere. But taking direction and dealing with people are both still difficult for him. I’m hopeful swim team this year can be a continued place for growth and fun, and more good days than difficult days. I’m happy to be a resource as the season progresses.”

I had no response to this email, but his first 2 weeks of practice were great, primarily because he was again assigned to the same Wonderful Assistant Coach. But today was a transition day: he moved up again, which meant new pool, new time of day, longer practice time (from 30 to 45 minutes), and…new coaches. Guess what happened? The new assistant coach he was assigned to kicked him out of the lesson time just before the end because “he wasn’t listening.” I had a little chat with this coach at the end. It turns out that she’s a novice coach (this was her second day!) and she knew nothing about him. Nada. She had not been prepped. She had no idea she needed to ask before touching him. She had no idea he is autistic. That email I sent in advance was once again worth nothing. And so, unfortunately, I had cause to send yet another email to the coaching team.

“Dear Coach [Name Redacted],

My son had a great first 2 weeks with [Wonderful Assistant Coach]. Today was his first day at the new pool with new coaches and a longer time slot. I expected a few bumps, especially since he was going to be with a new coach, but I hoped, since I took great care to delineate what he needs in terms of accommodations, that he would at least have a positive first session today. Once again, however, he was kicked out of the pool before the end of the lesson time because the coach did not know how to deal with him. (This happened to him the first day of swim team last year, too, despite my requests for accommodations in advance.) As he got out of the pool he said to me “apparently I’m done for the day because I’m stupid.” He is now convinced that he cannot succeed. Please understand that my son has been kicked out of the first day of EVERYTHING–after school programs, sports teams, summer camps, etc.,–because “he doesn’t listen.” Yet no one seems to heed my advance information or observe the very simple suggestions I send. This takes a pretty heavy psychological toll on my son. I was hoping for different outcomes this year. I would hate for him to give up on the team and on swimming because of lack of accommodations. His disability is not visible but is real.
I had a chance to talk briefly with the coach afterwards, and she was surprised to hear that he is autistic. She asked if there was anything she could do to work with him and while I’m glad she’s open to working with him, I’m frustrated that she wasn’t given this information in advance. (I asked her to contact you.) She also told me it was her second day, and I’m a bit perplexed that a swimmer with special needs would be paired with a novice coach. I don’t know how the coaching is organized, but is it possible to purposefully place children with special needs with more experienced coaches, or at least give them the necessary information about particular children in advance? [This swim team] is such an awesome organization, but if we want it to be an inclusive organization, then accommodations really need to be honored. 
I realize that not everyone knows about how to work with autistic kids. But what we ask for is not extreme, and my husband and I are happy to offer further support and coaching for the coaches. I know you have other autistic kids on the team; the accommodations we request for [my son] will help more than just him. I hope to hear from you before tomorrow’s practice about whether or not the coaches will be able to work with him in the new environment.”
I’m still trying to figure out what to do next, particularly if the Coach doesn’t respond. And I’ll have to see how my son feels in the coming days about actually going to practice. Also, I’m really, really angry. But they’ve picked the wrong family to ignore. At the very least, the organization’s Board should expect to hear from me soon about developing an inclusion policy and training the coaches to work with disabled kids. Accommodations for some leads to a better organization for everyone.
**Update, next day: The head coach did respond to my email and apologized for the rough first day. It turns out that the assistant coach is not a novice at all; she’s been coaching for 3 years for this team. She referred to yesterday as her “second day” because she just came back from college and has only been back with the team for 2 days. so there’s that at least. The head coach has passed my accommodations request on to the middle management of the coaching team that works with this group, so everyone should be in the loop now. Apparently the coaching team was running late yesterday, so there wasn’t time to share information about the swimmers. So here’s a PSA for everyone who teachers / coaches / supervises kids: info about the kids who need accommodations needs to be your priority. Don’t leave it until the last minute. A kid’s self-esteem might be at stake.
I am, of course, skeptical. There will still be bumps. And I’m still convinced that this shouldn’t have happened at all, and certainly not 2 years in a row. That whole “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than for permission” DOES NOT WORK when we’re dealing with accommodations. Take note of this, world.

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