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Helping autistic kids skate to health, happiness

Doctoral student Stephanie Patterson is also a certified figure skating coach.
Through her love of figure skating, Canadian-born Stephanie Patterson discovered an enjoyable physical outlet for autistic children that also helped them become a part of their wider community. A certified professional figure skating coach, Patterson established a "learn to skate" program in her native Calgary to get children and teens with autism out onto the ice along with family members, creating quality family time.
Today a doctoral student in educational psychology at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS), Patterson co-authored the recently published book, "Getting Into the Game: Sports Programs For Kids With Autism" (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2012) with Veronica Smith, associate professor at the University of Alberta, who ran the skating program with Patterson. The book’s forward was written by GSE&IS Professor of Education Connie Kasari, who has done extensive research and clinical work with children with autism and who serves as Patterson’s doctoral adviser.
The book, based on recreational programs for children with autism throughout the United States and Canada, describes the benefits of participation in skating and other sports, including soccer, biking, tennis, swimming and martial arts.
Although ice skating can be challenging to learn, "a great perk to skating is learning to understand where each component of one’s body is in space," the authors write. "Children with [autism] often experience difficulties with motor coordination." Skating enables them to monitor the parts of their bodies and these parts' movements, as well as to perform a sequence of movements.
The book also presents "the foundational primary skills that you would need to learn skating and other sports, Patterson said, along with "the different ways in which families, coaches or interventionists could help the child learn these skills."
Patterson, who has several years of experience as an in-home aide and interventionist, said that she noticed during her work in these arenas that many families of children with autism did not have positive experiences in trying to place their children in community recreational or sports programs.
"Several families just stopped trying because they had so many negative experiences coming into brand-new settings with new people," she said. "It can be tough for kids with autism to adjust and adapt to having all those different aspects of the environment thrown at them, in addition to the demands of having to learn a new physical skill and participate in a group."
The program in Calgary, which took place in a local community skating club, succeeded because it provided "the kinds of things you would see in specialized educational programs, but now in a sports setting," Patterson said. These included "lots of visual supports, great adult volunteers, the use of token economies [and] the educational supports that you would see in a classroom."
She added that the children’s academic and social skills were enhanced in the nurturing, inclusive environment.
"It is important to find community programs where kids with autism still have access to their community peers, but also have appropriate learning supports to learn and pick up skills within that setting," Patterson said.
The social benefits of the Calgary program extended well beyond the children, she added.
"It became a family affair," Patterson said. "Having everybody together [to] take part in something in the community was a really big deal for a lot of the families, who reported [previously] feeling kind of isolated, going from intervention to intervention and not being able to do something that’s just a regular community leisure activity."
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