“When I am swimming, I feel normal. It feels amazing when I swim.”
- Mikey, Swim Team
In Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the parents of one boy on the autism spectrum do not let this diagnosis stand in the way of his success. Instead, they take matters into their own hands and form the Jersey Hammerheads, a Special Olympics swim team for a group of diverse teens on the autism spectrum. They train and coach this team of teens to compete together with high expectations, zero pity and plenty of support and encouragement.
In this science-focused lesson, students will learn about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and explore how participating in sports can benefit individuals on the spectrum. Through viewing film clips from the documentary Swim Team and reading current research on ASD, students will practice the scientific method of observation and data collection at their own school, focusing on sports and special needs students.
A Note for Educators: When beginning any lesson on neurodiversity, autism spectrum disorder or special needs, please be sensitive to the fact that students in your class and school community may be identified as existing somewhere on the spectrum. Remind your class of the importance of being respectful of and sensitive to all learning styles.
One class period with research project for homework.
By the end of this lesson, students will:
- Understand the difference between correlation and cause.
- Understand a range of relevant terms associated with autism spectrum disorder.
- Identify and discuss the positive correlation of sports participation and success on teens with special needs by viewing clips from the documentary film Swim Team.
- Engage in the scientific inquiry method of observation and data collection at their school.
- A/V equipment to show film segments of Swim Team
- Access to computers for students to complete online readings
Activity: Learning About Positive Correlation and Science
Begin class by giving an overview of correlation and its relationship to science. Direct students to the National Earth Science Teachers Association website page on correlations in science and read it as a group.
Explain to students that in this lesson they will be learning about the positive correlation between sports participation and success of teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by viewing film clips from the documentary Swim Team, conducting individual research on ASD and engaging in the process of observation and data collection at their own school.
Have the following terms posted and allow students a few minutes to research definitions and share as a class. See Autism Speaks Glossary of Terms or other links provided.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Tourette syndrome
Transition to viewing a short two-minute clip created by 60 Minutes Sports that offers an overview of the positive effect of sports participation on people with ASD.
Move to showing the four clips from the documentary Swim Team. Each explores a different athlete and the role the swim team plays in their lives and the lives of their families. After each segment, students will respond in writing to the clip and convey what they learned. Feel free to use any or all of the prompts below and/or ask students to respond to one or more of the quotes provided below.
- What thoughts, feelings or reactions do you have to this film segment?
- What specifically did you learn about autism from this film clip?
- What role did sports play in this individual’s life and their family’s life?
“When I am swimming, I feel normal. It feels amazing when I swim.” – Mikey, Athlete
“At one time or another, all of our kids have been ostracized, and for them to be part of a team is incredible.” – Michael, Coach and Parent
“Because God made you special. Not every kid can be special. . . .That is the truth. He is special.” – Michael, Coach and Parent
“For me it is not about fun time. It is about training. You need to work hard for it.” – Robbie, Athlete
“Kelvin was a typical developmental baby. . . After he turned two, the world changed. He lost his vocabulary. He didn’t talk. . . . I couldn’t understand his needs.” – Patti, Athlete’s Mother
“Medication has no impact. We see the reduction of tics and anger through swimming.” –Stanley, Athlete’s Father
“We encourage the world to view our children as we do. Strong, accomplished individuals who have the potential to change the world, one perception at a time.” – Announcer, Special Olympics
“He was never supposed to talk. Write his name. Swim. Here it is 11 years later and look what he is doing. The whole thing is you can’t give up on your child. It is no cliché. Everybody says it, but I’ve lived it. I live it every day.” – Michael, Coach and Parent
“I always had visions of him always staying with me. But seeing him progress and doing what he is doing, now I am second thinking this. . . . This kid has a future. He is going to do what he wants. He can do it.” – Maria, Parent and Team Manager
After students complete their individual reflections, have them organize themselves in groups of three. Post the following readings on the class Google Drive, or another online shared space, and ask each student to choose one article and complete a jigsaw reading.
Students will then share their findings in small groups by discussing this question: What new information did you learn about autism from your article?
National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet”
Each group of students will collectively write up an observational plan to collect data on the practices of their school’s athletics programs, including physical education classes, intramural sports programs and/or after-school sports programs. Students will observe the strengths and challenges in their athletic programs and assess how the programs support athletic participation for all students. In doing so, students will articulate the correlation and relationship between science and educational policy.
For background information, students may want to read this overview of a school’s obligation to its students with special needs.
Possible prompts for students to consider in designing their plans:
- How does the school promote an inclusive sports community for all students?
- Where do we find evidence of this policy?
- What are the observed opportunities for students to be involved?
- What are the obstacles?
- What are the accommodations within the school sports program for students of all abilities and interests?
General Information on Autism
Autism and the Benefits of Sports
Positive Effect of Sports on the Brain
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Blueshift is a team of education specialists with background in environmental and social impact work. The team recognizes and builds on the power of documentary film in reaching broad audiences to spark energy for deep and lasting social change. The team works with filmmakers, photographers and writers to develop innovative educational strategies, experiences, tools and resources that bring stories off the screen and into viewers' lives.