Age Differences

Should teens and young adults participate in group activities with younger kids? For example, at what point do our friends with autism outgrow the need for participating in soccer, swimming, t-ball, and other adaptive recreational activities designed specifically for individuals with special needs?

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An follower writes, for example, of an older teen who grabbed and squeezed the arm of an 8-year-old in a therapeutic swim class when the younger swimmer yelled loudly. The swim coach asked about the appropriateness of allowing the teen to participate in the class with younger children, saying the parents are adamant about their daughter’s participation.

There are many factors involved here, but let’s look first at the initial problem – squeezing arms. The teen’s arms are, naturally, longer than the younger kid. And her squeezing – a common behavior in autism – is probably her way of saying, “Don’t yell!” to that 8-year-old. But I’ve also been in situations where the smallest kid in a group was a serious hitter, biter, pincher, or scratcher, sometimes for not perceptible reason. When I find myself in situations like this, where minor or major aggression is involved, I plan all activities so that everyone is always out of reach of a person who is aggressive. And by that, I mean everyone is always out of reach. We’ll look at some effective ways to make that happen in a future podcast.

Now let’s take a look at the issue of age differences. I’ve been working in the same little towns for over 30 years, and my heart always breaks when kids grow up (and they all do!) and services dwindle away for them. I appreciate the parent’s being this teenager’s advocate and encouraging people to allow their daughter to participate in the swim group. At the same time, I also understand the concerns expressed by the swim coach. There are many reasons people of different ages may or may not work well together in a group. This question specifically addresses the issue of aggression by the teenager. Some thoughts:
1. The swim coach might talk to the young lady (even if she doesn’t seem to understand) and to her parents about making the teen an “assistant” in the class or group activity. That allows the coach to have her right by his side (or by the side of another adult assistant) at all times without it looking like he is isolating her from the group. It also helps distract her from yelling and other behavior by the younger kids that causes her aggressiveness.
2. The swim coach could also talk to the parents about the possibility of developing a therapeutic swimming group for older teens and young adults. The parents might be able to help recruit participants. Hmmm…wish this swim group were in my town so I could encourage some of my friends with autism to enroll!

Most importantly, the swim instructor will want to talk to the parents about concerns with their daughter squeezing the younger swimmer. Squeezing arms in an attempt to say “stop!’ is a rather typical behavior among individuals with autism. Talk to the parents in a positive, non-accusatory manner about how you are addressing the issue. Ask if they have other suggestions. When we provide services for individuals with special needs, we have to expect some challenging issues, so we need as many people on our team as possible.

TIP FOR THE DAY: Look carefully at all the contributing factors, then develop an effective plan to help this older teen participate successfully in therapeutic swimming, a plan that includes changing the changeable factors. Click on the Toolkit tab on our website to check out these insightful, practical resources: Pinpoint the Problems Toolkit and Change the Changeable Toolkit.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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