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March Madness and your nonspeaker

autism parenting education Mar 22, 2024
Houston Cougars basketball

Today both the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments will be in full swing. This year's cast of characters are rich in storyline, desire and talent.

Your nonspeaker is probably just as interested in the tournament as everyone else, even if they can't show it. We also can't expect them to experience the tournament in a neurotypical way. Here are some ideas to include your student in March Madness fun.

1. Feed them nuggets of backstory and make it relevant. I did this with my nonspeaker for the SuperBowl, and now we watch the New Heights podcast together. The key with him is to avoid infodumping, which will agitate him due to excessive talking. So, for example, in the weeks leading up to the SuperBowl, when a Travis Kelce commercial would show on TV, I'd point to him and explain that he plays for the Kansas City Chiefs and he's the tight end, which is offense. Here's where I had to bite my tongue and not infodump on how Tony Gonzalez was the best tight end to ever play the game, which would lead to another 15 minutes about Derrick Thomas, and then eventually, a meltdown. LOL

I also casually mentioned that Travis Kelce is also Taylor Swift's boyfriend and how she has to fly back from Japan, where she's on tour, to watch him play. We aren't Swifties but every 13-year-old alive knows who Taylor Swift is, and my Google Earth obsessed student would absolutely look for Japan on the app later, when I'm not around.

A few days later, when I was showing him photos of haircut choices, I purposely included Patrick Mahomes and his fauxhawk fade, and explained that he's the Chiefs' quarterback. The 49ers were easy to make relevant; one of my students' close friends is a big 49ers fans. 

As you can imagine, by the time the game aired, he was invested.

If a university in your state is competing in the tournament, make sure your student knows and can cheer for them. Or, if a family member's alma mater is competing, include your nonspeaker in those conversations. Let your student experience some of that good ol' provincial pride.

2. Find a way to tie in a special interest. For my student, that's food. He's a stereotypical autistic picky eater, but somehow that doesn't apply to trying food in the name of fun or learning. We use food to learn about history, holidays and other cultures. He enjoys trying sporting event snacks and would absolutely love it if I made one of those stadiums out of cold cuts, cheese and dips.

3. Turn on the subtitles. Most nonspeakers can read very well, they just aren't able to show it. Subtitles allow your student to learn new words while having fun, and it also communicates your presumption of competence. One problem with subtitles is they often cover up sports scores and other stats, so if you can, put the game on in another room for your student, with subtitles and the volume low or muted.

4. Let your student watch while on the move. Many nonspeakers can't sit still to enjoy much of anything for very long, so expecting them to sit through an entire game is unrealistic. Furthermore, the entire sensory experience of the game, people watching and cheering, and the smells of food and drink might be overwhelming. That's another reason I recommend putting the game on in two rooms. I do that and allow my student to move back and forth between the action and a cool down environment. The subtitles can be shown on the cool down TV if they get in the way of the action for others. Your student can also peek into the loud room to see the score.

Some students like to "watch" TV from a room that doesn't have a set at all, or even from outdoors. Many nonspeakers have described how their hearing is actually better if the noise is muffled or low. When my student is feeling dysregulated in the mornings he likes to be outside in the backyard. I'll turn on a documentary inside and turn it up just loud enough so he can hear it. I often peek outside to find him sitting and listening, gesturing appropriately during exciting or important parts. If your student is an eavesdropper, this is an excellent way to teach.

5. Let your student make some picks. If you're playing along with a bracket, show your student some picks and explain why you think the game is a lock or you're predicting an upset. Remember, don't infodump, keep it short. You can also include your student in conversations with others about the tournament. Simply speak to your student as if they're in the conversation group, without expecting them to actively participate.

6. Give them something to hold or collect. My student is currently into flashcards that display a bunch of facts, LIKE THESE. I found these flashcards that teach BASKETBALL TERMS AND PLAYS for nonspeakers interested in the game. If you're feeling ambitious, you could even make flashcards with the photos of important players and coaches in each tournament. I mean, can't you see Caitlyn Clark, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso on flashcards? Kim Mulkey and Dawn Staley, too - how fun!

If there's a family or local interest in a team, pick up some cheap team tchotchkes at the gas station over the next week or so, and give them to your student without expectation. 

Have fun enjoying March Madness with your nonspeaker! 

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