How Playing Sports Can Help Special Needs Kids On and Off the Field

Athletics can boost confidence for kids with autism and other developmental challenges.

Soccer players practicing drills on field.
For the best experience, let your child be part of the decision-making process when picking the right sport for him or her to play.

The two dozen or so adolescents and a handful of young adults in their 20s filed into the spacious lobby of a community ice rink in suburban Maryland in the pre-dawn darkness and quietly changed into their hockey gear – ice skates, pants and helmets.

Well before 7 a.m. on a Saturday, the players were on the ice, practicing their skating, puck-handling and shots on goal. They could have been any suburban sports team, but this squad was different. On the ice, a handful of teenage mentors partnered with some of the players, not only encouraging their play but engaging them in conversation.

The players are members of the Montgomery Cheetahs, a hockey squad in Montgomery County, Maryland, for kids and young adults with developmental disabilities. The Cheetahs range in age from 7 to 30 and include four girls. Most of the 70 or so players on the Cheetahs (they hold two separate practices, depending on their skill level) have autism spectrum disorder.

ASD covers a wide range of cognitive, motor and behavioral challenges, and common behaviors include failure to respond to one’s own name, poor eye contact and inappropriate and at times aggressive behavior with others. Some people with ASD may have repetitive body movements, such as rocking, or an obsessive attachment to objects like keys. While some kids with ASD are mildly affected, excel in the classroom and go on to attend prestigious universities, others are more profoundly affected and need more assistance to learn in school and with their social conduct.

For the Cheetahs, and for other special needs kids or adolescents, the primary purpose of participating in athletics is to have fun. But playing can also help people with ASD in important ways. For example, ASD can affect the motor skills such as agility, balance, strength and dexterityof some kids with autism, research has shown. Exercise can improve some of these skills, and being physically active also improves one’s mood, studies show.

Many youngsters with ASD have trouble making friends and socializing, in part because they have challenges reading social and emotional cues. Being part of a team helps kids bond and develop friendships outside the skating arena, Cheetah parents say. This flows from their love of the game.

Bonds Formed on the Ice

Like many teenagers, Cheetah Ryan DeSoto, 13, isn’t usually thrilled when his mom, Colleen DeSoto, rousts him to get up for school, she says. When she wakes him for hockey practice, he bounces up, anxious to play – and to see his friends on the team. “This is their tribe, their social group,” DeSoto says. Ryan has developed several friendships with other players and is routinely invited to social events such as birthday parties.

While there’s not much clinical research on the overall impact of playing sports on kids with autism, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that participating in athletics can help them build much-needed confidence, says Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer at Autism Speaks, a global science and advocacy organization that supports people with autism and their families throughout the life span. “They can master [sports] skills and get better, which helps with their confidence,” Goring says. Playing sports also helps kids with ASD “work on social skills such as turn-taking, waiting, cooperation and tolerating losing [good sportsmanship],” says Lauren Herlihy, a licensed psychologist at the Autism Center at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, Connecticut.

Playing Builds Confidence

Cheetah parents say they’ve seen how playing hockey as part of a team has improved their child’s self-assurance and social skills. “This has been awesome for Ryan’s confidence,” DeSoto says. “He’ll tell his schoolmates he plays ice hockey – they’re all impressed. They don’t care that it’s special needs hockey.”

Ice hockey is just one of many team and individual athletic opportunities available for special needs kids nationwide. These include sports leagues created by parents of special needs kids and programs available through city and county recreation departments. There are Little League Baseball divisions and soccer programs, for example, for special needs kids. The Special Olympics has sports opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities, and The Skate Connection, a nonprofit in Los Angeles, provides skateboarding clinics for people with disabilities. Many private schools for kids with special needs have sports teams that emphasize inclusiveness.

“We have a ‘show up and suit up’ approach,” says Brent Betit, head of The Fletcher School, a private nonprofit independent K-12 school in Charlotte, North Carolina, that’s geared toward kids with learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “If they want to play, they can play; we don’t select out like some competitive teams at other schools.” The school has seven competitive teams in soccer, basketball, flag football and other sports, as well as 13 club athletic activities, including jump rope and karate.

With such a wide array of athletic options, figuring out which activity is right can be challenging. Experts and parents of kids with developmental challenges who play sports suggest these strategies:

Follow your child’s lead. It’s important that your child enjoy whatever sport or sports he or she plays, Goring says. Talk to your kid about the different sports opportunities available and “include your child in the decision-making process,” she says. This can help your child build self-confidence and promote a sense of independence.

Find the right fit. Not every sport will be appropriate, or safe, for every child with special needs. For example, ice hockey and basketball – fast-paced team games that involve physical contact and require good hand-eye coordination and on-the-go communication with teammates – may not be the right sport for every child with developmental delays.

For kids who don’t have great motor or communications skills, an individual endeavor that could be part of a team, like swimming or karate, might be best. Amy Kelly’s daughter, Annie, 15, is more profoundly affected by her autism, which affects her motor and verbal communications skills; she communicates with an electronic tablet. Annie’s two brothers taught her how to hit a baseball off a tee in the family’s backyard in the Philadelphia area, and Amy taught her how to run the bases. “She has a great time,” Kelly says. “It’s exercise in a fun way.”

Be creative. A special needs child may not want or be able to play sports, but could participate another way, says Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “A kid could help out as an equipment manager,” says Fisher, whose 5-year-old son has ASD. “Coaches can be creative in incorporating special needs kids into their teams.”

Look for a program with the right coaching philosophy. More important than finding a sport your kid enjoys is locating one where the coaching philosophy focuses primarily on the player’s social, emotional and behavioral growth rather than just mastering game skills or getting exercise, says David Lucia, the Cheetahs’ director and head coach. “It’s more important that they learn to play together as a team, learn to be patient, take turns, treat their teammates and others with dignity, respect and kindness than to be the best puck-handler on the team,” he says.

Celebrate successes. Acknowledge not just victories, but progress on and off the ice, the field or the court, says Tami Feldman, whose son is a Cheetahs mentor. “Try hard and celebrate the little steps,” Feldman says. “For one kid, it may be tying his skates for the first time. We cheer them. Every step is different for every child.”

Should You Try Carb Cycling for Weight Loss?

Is having your carbs and eating them too too good to be true?

Quinoa spinach eggplant feta salad.
Quinoa and brown rice could give you a healthier alternative to other high-carb foods such as pasta and pizza.

Erika Straus used to consider herself one of those lucky people who can eat whatever they want and not gain weight. So, naturally, she did – filling up on pasta, pizza and other dorm life staples while maintaining her fit figure. But when the then-college rugby player hurt her knees and stopped exercising regularly, she realized her luck had run out.

“I had all of these bad habits and gained 40 pounds” as a result, says Straus, now a 25-year-old opera singer in the District of Columbia, who also runs District CrossFit’s social media and marketing efforts.

After a few unsuccessful weight loss attempts and some internet research, she decided to try carb cycling, a strategy that promotes eating a very low-carbohydrate diet some days and a carbohydrate-rich diet on other days. To Straus, who loves pasta, the plan seemed far more bearable than following an entirely low- or no-carb diet all the time. The reality, however, was different.

“I’d go off carbs for two days, then have a meal with carbs and I would just overdo it,” Straus says. After a few months, she gained even more weight, quit the plan and continued to pack on pounds. “I didn’t necessarily believe it was possible to get in the best shape of your life in a healthy way,” she says.

That all changed last spring when Straus moved to the District of Columbia, began biking to work and joined CrossFit, where she saw people carb cycling – and succeeding. So she decided to try it again, but with a different approach. This time, instead of bingeing on pasta on her carb-heavy days, she eats quinoa, brown rice or beans. Instead of haphazardly planning her low- and high-carb days, she aligns them with her workout schedule. Instead of leaving her eating choices to chance, she cooks batches of vegetables, chicken and hard-boiled eggs. And, instead of gaining weight, she’s flattened her belly, thinned her face and neck and watched muscle definition emerge. “I’ve already seen things that I did not see before,” she says.

What Is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling – which isn’t a “diet” so much as a concept that emphasizes when you eat certain foods – seems to have originated among bodybuilders, fitness models and elite athletes trying to achieve peak performance. The idea was that by starving the body of carbohydrates, they’d improve its ability to increase glucose, or the stored form of carbohydrate energy, later. Then, when they ate large amounts of carbohydrates before competition, they’d soar.

“For example, sprinters [wanted] to see if they could tap into that extra stored form of glucose or energy even for an extra second longer, which would improve their times,” says Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian in Denver who works with athletes.

But while the jury is still out on whether carb cycling actually works for that purpose, the eating pattern has nonetheless made its way into more mainstream circles like CrossFit gyms, social media posts and diet books, which mostly highlight carb cycling as a way to lose fat while building muscle.

“The way I describe it is: You need carbs to sustain activity levels, but until you’re at 10 percent body fat or below [for men], you might as well burn your body fat as fuel and teach your body how to do it well,” says Jim Loperfido, founder of Solace New York, who’s been using variations of carb cycling for nearly four years.

But whether carb cycling works to lose weight or improve body composition is debated, too. On one hand, you’re likely to lose weight, at least at the beginning, since carbohydrates hold onto water and cutting them out periodically can shed water weight, says Jim White, a registered dietitian and personal trainer with studios in Virginia. “That tends to motivate people,” he says. Some also find carb cycling is more reasonable and nutritionally balanced than diets that eliminate carbs entirely or require followers to obsessively count calories. “I’m just living life and eating what feels good,” Straus says.

On the other hand, carb cycling isn’t safe or effective for everyone. Here’s what experts suggest considering before giving it a shot:

1. Know the risks.

If you have diabetes, heart disease or any type of metabolic syndrome, steer clear of carb cycling or any diet that restricts healthy carbohydrates. Women, too, should be cautious about trying carb cycling since their bodies need more fat than men, Loperfido says. Anyone can experience negative side effects like irritability, lack of energy and moodiness from carb cycling, too. “I’ve heard it hasn’t worked for [people who’ve tried it] because they can’t deal with those ups and downs,” Crandall says.

If you’re carb cycling to boost athletic performance, keep in mind that novelty can backfire, “You would never train out your tennis shoes on your marathon day, so putting a different fuel source in your body on marathon day may completely ruin how you feel during that run,” Crandall says.

2. Consider your activity level.

Carb cycling doesn’t just mean eating lots of carbs one day and few or none the next. While plans vary in exactly how many grams of carbohydrates you eat on how many days of the week, the point is to match your high-carbohydrate days with your most active days. If you don’t exercise, the plan might not make sense for you.

3. Eat smartly.

As Straus learned, portion sizes, carbohydrate sources and patience all still matter. “Healthy weight loss and good body change is not going to happen overnight,” she says. It’s also important to keep your overall calorie intake relatively stable, White says. “By decreasing carbs and restricting that, when you load up on carbs, people are going overboard and binge eat,” he says. “It can lead to binge eating disorders.”

4. Talk to a pro.

Before starting a carb cycling plan, recruit the guidance of a registered dietitian or personal trainer with expertise in nutrition, who can make sure you’re following it in a way that meets your nutrient and energy needs. “If it’s a jump-start and you get that psychological edge, why not try it out?” White says. “But if it’s harmful for health and body, it’s not worth the risk.” Ultimately, Crandall adds, the pattern was never meant for weight loss or long-term use. “Do what you know you can do,” she tells clients, “instead of reaching for something you can’t adhere to long-term.”

Even Kate Middleton Disregards This Major Fashion Rule

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    When it comes to selecting her outfits for public outings, Kate Middleton tends to err on the more conservative side. She often favors silhouettes that are covered up and tasteful. She isn’t afraid to embrace a fascinator. And there’s a very important reason why she’s always carrying a clutch. Seriously, mortals are not allowed to offer their hand to royals (for handshakes, palm smooches, etc.), unless the royals extend their hands first. If Middleton’s hands are always occupied by toting around an adorable boxy clutch, well, she won’t have to worry about engaging in an awkward handshake with someone she shouldn’t be.

    Needless to say, getting dressed as a member of Britain’s royal family is no easy feat.

    gettyimages 682705564 Even Kate Middleton Disregards This Major Fashion Rule

    But when it comes to wearing white before the official start of summer, this royal is throwing caution to the wind. The Duchess of Cambridge wore an off-white frock from See by Chloé this weekend, while hosting a tea party on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The event, which served to honor the children of those who have died while serving in the armed forces, was a joyful one; by no means did it call for Middleton to wear black.

    So it makes perfect sense why she wore white before it’s officially the season to. The turtleneck collar of her subtly cut-out dress, paired with long sleeves, is both demure and playful, while the knee-skimming A-line skirt is nothing but flattering. In fact, the dress is currently available online for only $460. Middleton even added a high fashion touch to her frock, by cinching her waist with a white Acne Studiosbelt.

    gettyimages 682704894 Even Kate Middleton Disregards This Major Fashion Rule

    It’s nice to see the Duchess of Cambridge showing off a new, rule breaking side. She also might be rebelling in the days leading up to her sister’s wedding. On May 20, Pippa Middleton will be the sister wearing white and it looks like her royal sister won’t even have a role in the ceremony.