All children can benefit from exercise and sports, but special needs kids will often thrive with them. Physical activities help special needs kids improve muscle tone and conditioning, self-esteem, motor skills, cognitive function and communication ability. While there may sometimes be extra obstacles for special needs kids to conquer, a little creativity and determination can help families share sports together.
Several local organizations can help get kids involved. Cincinnati TOPSoccer, which operates under US Youth Soccer, is a league especially designed for kids with special needs. Whether a child has autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, speech, vision or hearing impairments — or uses crutches, a walker or a wheelchair — the league provides a chance to play soccer with practices, games, uniforms, tournaments and an awards banquet at the end of each season. Kids are placed on teams based on ability, age and size. A unique facet of Cincinnati TOPSoccer is that it complements other programs like Special Olympics and non-disabled teams, by recruiting, assessing and helping to train young athletes.
“I think the great thing about TOPSoccer is coach Randy tries to teach the kids about the game,” says Doug Hahn. His 14-year-old son, Jeremy, has played in the league for four years in the Rollers Division, on a team called Wheels of Fortune. “He runs a camp in August before the season starts that is not unlike what my other son does for club soccer — a couple of hours each night for a week, warm ups, drills and then games. The kids have a great time and are pretty worn out at the end of each night,” Hahn says.
And the benefits aren’t all physical, Hahn explains. “Kids get a chance to be part of a team, spend time with their peers and be typical kids … I’ve had several parents mention how important the league is to their kids, and I think they all look forward to it as much as typical kids look forward to soccer games.”
Participating in a league like Cincinnati TOPSoccer is good for the family, says Paige Hahn, Jeremy’s stepmother. She says that getting together for tournaments provides an opportunity for talking with other families, sharing stories and challenges, and exchanging ideas on how to best meet their childrens’ needs.
But what really makes Cincinnati TOPSoccer truly awesome, according to Jeremy, is that it’s all about “getting to score goals!”
Over at Hamilton County Special Olympics (HCSO), year-round training and competition is available for 15 traditional sports and 10 unified ones (sports that pair a non-handicapped individual with someone mentally or developmentally handicapped). Kids must be at least 8 years old to participate, while children ages 5 – 7 can do training activities and youngsters ages 2 – 5 can get involved in the Young Athlete’s Program. HCSO patterns Special Olympic competitions after the Olympic games with summer and winter competitions.