Can You Row with Autism?

30 Oct

The latest “Can You Row With…” post comes from Paola and Ian Ward, who themselves have taken their adaptive rowing partnership international with competitions in Cork, Ireland and Turin, Italy. Paola’s son Ian has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) so she has rowed as his support rower for many years as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon RC adaptive squad. They kindly shared their perspectives on their experience…

[For more further perspectives on this area, British rowing also recently featured a piece “Rowing and Neurodivergence”]

I’m writing on behalf of my son Ian who has ASD and other diagnoses associated with his disability. Ian was diagnosed with Autism when he was four years old, since then it has been a long road to find the right sport for him.

As an able-bodied person with an invisible disability, Ian is often misunderstood by society, as many people do not see the daily challenges he faces in so many aspects of his life. After a couple of years trying different sports, he started rowing in the Adaptive squad at Stratford upon Avon at the age of 13. We were prepared for the typical disappointment that we had experienced at previous sporting groups when we were told they were unable to support Ian’s needs, or that he was too disruptive. But this disappointment never came – his coach, Mark Dewdney, stuck by him and persevered, and so did Ian and I.

Since the very first sessions when he sat by the water on the pontoon and were guided through the movements of the stroke, he has always loved being by the water as it has calmed him ever since he was young. He progressed to a stable single scull and immediately loved it. Soon, he moved into a double scull assisted by a support rower at bow. The rest is history. Ian has since attended numerous regattas, including international events in Ireland and Italy.

Given Ian’s issues with proprioception and focus, he needs to row with a support rower at bow (me). He also needs frequent reminders and instructions to keep him on task. From the communication point of view we have changed some of the rowing jargon to be more accessible for Ian, something that has more sense to him. The instructions are shorter and most of the time some technical aspects of rowing have to be demonstrated instead of explained.

His training involves a well scheduled day starting the night before, allowing him to know several aspects of the training session until he goes back to the car. If one of these is missed, he can show distress.

Ian enjoys taking part in rowing events but sometimes he finds it overwhelming so he needs a secluded area or staying in a specific place until he is called to boating.

Ian struggles with processing information having an effect during training and also during a race, for example he is not always ready when an umpire gives the start or shout because he is “daydreaming” or just trying to send the signal to the rest of his body so I’ve to be extra sensitive when he executes the first movement because this one is not always obvious.

Also, for Ian, keeping the rate of the boat is very difficult because most of the time he can only feel the extremes.

As a young autistic adult, now 21 years old, the space he has found in rowing gives him a sense of belonging – both a social hub and a place to regulate himself with exercise. Rowing is an environment where Ian can work towards his sporting goals and feel proud about his achievements. Every time Ian and I row together, I am reminded of how grateful I am to be able to share this huge part of his life with him.

Ian Ward - Rowing with Autism 2

Ian Ward - Rowing with Autism 1

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