Tips and suggestions for coaches working with autistic kids

There are many ways coaches can work effectively with autistic kids.

In fact, the tips and suggestions in this guide can help all kids, not just those with hidden disabilities.

This is the second part of a special feature aimed at improving understanding about the many children who are missing out on team sports opportunities because of their hidden disabilities or because they are misunderstood within the sports community.

PART ONE: How to support young footballers with hidden challenges and disabilities >>>>>

The writer of this article is a parent to an autistic football player, and has chosen to remain anonymous, as their child has not publicly shared their diagnosis.

This feature deals mainly with autism, and the story has been reviewed by Autism NZ.

How football can help

Football and other team sports provide an excellent opportunity for social skill development. Some recent studies have shown a link to better academic outcomes as well!

Keeping autistic children engaged and interested in sport can be really challenging. Sometimes autistic traits can make it seem like they are not engaged, not trying as hard or not as strong of a player as their peers.

Autistic kids might not have the social skills of other kids. Some autistic kids can be incredibly lonely. They want friends, but they don’t know how to fit in with their neurotypical peers.

They may not understand the intrinsic give and take in a typical friendship. Team sports might then seem odd to children who can appear as if they are in their own little world.

For example, telling kids to “get into pairs” can be overwhelming for kids who may not know others and find communication hard.

Sometimes, it can help for the coach to assign pairs or to assign groups, especially at the start of a season, to facilitate social connections.

But team sports often have well-defined rules of what you need to do, and the role each person needs to play.

Autistic children can thrive in this environment, where they have a role and a job to do; there is less pressure to understand subtext than in a free-play situation.

Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

Some tips

Here are some things you can do to help your autistic kids have a better experience (and they’ll help the whole team).

Choose your words carefully — be explicit — as autistic kids will take you literally

Ensure communication is clear and consistent. Autistic kids often will not recognise sarcasm or indirect communication.

They may not read body language, or understand indirect instructions.

  • Focus on telling them what you want them to do (not what you DON’T want them to do). Give short, precise directions. Instead of “don’t run,” say “walk.”
  • Very specific, explicit communication is really important. E.g. to a left back: “I want you to be touching the sideline when the ball is played by the goalkeeper”, not “stay wide”.
  • Don’t assume everyone comes from a football background and knows what football terms mean. Try to introduce and explain terms — it may need many repetitions to learn the language of football. Being very literal means that some of the language concepts need to be explained rather than assumed. E.g. what do you specifically mean by “drop back” or “wide”.

Are you sure that the kids know what you mean?

Try not to use metaphors

Autistic people tend to be very literate in their interpretation of language. They may do exactly what you say, rather than what you mean.

Example: “Keep an eye on the ball and follow its movement like a hawk.”

The player might take the instruction literally and focus on imitating a hawk’s movements rather than concentrating on tracking the ball during the game.

A revised instruction might be: “ay close attention to the ball. Watch its movement and stay close to it during the game.”

Example: “Play it cool, and don’t let the pressure get to you. Dance around the opponents with the ball.”

Potential misinterpretation: An autistic person might struggle with the abstract concept of “playing it cool” or interpreting the metaphorical use of “dance around the opponents.” (They may try and literally dance, and then not understand why their teammates might laugh at them).

Revised would be: “Stay calm and focused. Move skilfully with the ball to avoid the opponents.”

Communication with parents

Maintain open lines of communication with parents or guardians. Collaborate with them to understand the child’s individual needs, preferences, and any strategies that have proven effective at home.

Remember, as a coach, you are helping kids learn to play football, but you are also helping them to develop essential life skills.

This author has coached a number of neurodivergent children. None of them were identified on the registration paperwork.

They may not have had a diagnosis, or they were reluctant to share it.

Depending on the age of the kids, it can be really helpful to ask all parents (through email, or a form you hand out): What would you like me to know about your child for me to help them learn and develop as a player?

If you notice some behaviour and you are curious, and it’s possible to speak to the parents, here’s a script I recommend.

“Hey, I’m the coach of X. I wanted to have a quick chat to you about him/her. I have noticed XYZ behaviour, and I wondered if that’s something you have seen? Is there a good way to connect with, or get the best from your child?”

I coached a child who really struggled with following instructions. It would appear as if they were listening, and then would head off with the group and be completely lost, every time, after the first 30 seconds.

I was able to ask a parent about it. They shared that this was something they struggled with in the home and school.

The child didn’t have a diagnosis, but they were going through testing. The child struggled to process a series of instructions. They could follow one, but not remember anything that came after number one.

This helped me and my fellow coaches break down instructions into smaller tasks, and sometimes spend more time with this player. Once they learned, they had it. It just took longer to get there.

Positive reinforcement: For specific tasks, positive reinforcement is a powerful tool. Acknowledge and reward effort, progress, and good sportsmanship.

It can also help to be specific in what you are rewarding or praising. Example: “That was a great pass, I loved the scanning you did” is more helpful for development than “good job”

Set achievable tasks/ goals

Set explicit tasks that are achievable: coaching that sounds like “I want you to go and score a goal” can be distressing if that’s not possible due to factors outside your player’s control.

Setting tasks that are achievable, such as “I want you to always turn around and try and win the ball back if you lose it” or “I want you to jog back to position rather than walk” is more helpful.

Visual aids

Visual aids, such as charts, schedules, and diagrams, can help convey information, providing a visual framework to understand the rules and expectations of the game.

It can also help to send visual aids to parents via email or social media. This can give kids a chance to learn in their own pace/own environment.


Many autistic kids love structure. They like to know the plan and what’s going to happen in advance.

If you establish a routine for practices and games, the predictability can help reduce anxiety and improve focus. Clearly communicate the schedule in advance, and be consistent with your coaching methods to provide a sense of security.

This may look like always starting with a 10 min warm-up, then individual skills, then a small-sided game, then a drill, then another game.

Autistic children can be extreme rule followers. This can be great, as they want to follow the rules. However, it can cause them intense frustration when OTHERS don’t follow the rules, or the rules are changed without warning.

For example, a practice game with two goals at one end and one at the other. The autistic player might require more time and explanation to understand that this is a different game that looks like football, but is not football, and the rules are different.

Another example might be a referee being stricter in a game for one team than another. For adults, if one team is winning 10-0, this might be logical and obvious. Autistic kids with their black and white thinking can see this as unfair, or cheating.

Game day anxiety

Autistic kids can feel a lot of stress not knowing what is going to happen on game day. Who is going to be there, what position they will play, when they will be subbed. There are so many factors that they cannot control, and control or understanding helps them to regulate their emotions.

One suggestion for younger kids — maybe up to 9 or 10 — could be to set out a game plan of who will play where and when they will sub and send this to parents the day before.

1. Kids can prepare for what they are going to do.
2. Kids know that they are not going to be subbed for “good” or “bad” play; they will be subbed according to the plan.
3. You can give subbing to a parent to manage!
4. You tell kids that the plan might change, such as, if someone is sick or injured. That can be easier for some to cope with than turning up and having no plan at all.

Black and white thinking

Autistic children can be very black and white. There is no grey area, and sometimes no seeing another’s point of view.

Author’s note: I lean into football as a special interest and often find examples from football to teach about life. One I have used is the fact that a referee cannot see everything from all angles like a TV screen — sometimes they might make the wrong call, but they can only call what they see.

In life, sometimes we don’t see everything, so we don’t always know when we are wrong.

Feedback, sharing and communication

Provide opportunities for kids to share, but don’t try and force eye contact or a verbal response. This can result in the child shutting down and not coming back.

Autistic children may find it hard to focus if many in the group are talking at once and can find this overpowering (you might see the child walking away from the group to regulate themselves).

Don’t try and force a child to re-join a group. Try and give them space; carry on with the plan with the rest of the group.

Autistic kids can have a huge amount of anxiety, including about how they fit into the world around them.

Football skills don’t always match social skills

If you happen to have an autistic kid with great football skills, please don’t expect them to automatically “be a leader”. This is a concept and skills that need to be taught, and leadership is an abstract concept that some autistic kids will struggle with.

Sensory considerations

Be mindful of sensory sensitivities (noise/smell/visual) that autistic children may experience at a much more heightened level than other kids.

Allow breaks during practices if needed, and provide options for sensory tools or strategies that can help children self-regulate in challenging situations.

Things like Fidget spinners that allow autistic kids to be moving can actually help some kids concentrate.

We see this on the pitch with kids who are juggling or messing about with a ball while the coach is talking — they are listening, but appear to the world like they are not.

Can you get them doing something with their bodies while you talk to help with the sensory overload?

Missed the first part in this series?

PART ONE: How to support young footballers with hidden challenges and disabilities >>>>>

Recommended reading

Former English Premier League defender John O’Kane retired from football at 29 due to his mental health and diminished appetite for the game.

In truth, he had never been truly satisfied with his career because his autism and naturally questioning nature led to clashes with authority, a cardinal sin in the world of football then.

He’s shared his story in his book Bursting the Bubble: Football, Autism and Me: Football, Autism & Me, in which he tells of his days with Manchester United, where he shared a pitch with legends like Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona.

“I’ve received the hairdryer treatment from Fergie and partied with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe. I’ve roomed with David Beckham and knew him inside out.”

Click on the book cover to learn more, and to order a copy (Kindle or paperback) from Amazon.



Learn more about autism

April is Autism Acceptance Month.

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