Swim Team

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Lesson Plan: Sports and Autism: A Science Lesson on Correlation

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"When I am swimming, I feel normal. It feels amazing when I swim."
- Mikey, Swim Team

In Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the parents of one boy on the autism spectrum do not let this diagnosis stand in the way of his success. Instead, they take matters into their own hands and form the Jersey Hammerheads, a Special Olympics swim team for a group of diverse teens on the autism spectrum. They train and coach this team of teens to compete together with high expectations, zero pity and plenty of support and encouragement.

In this science-focused lesson, students will learn about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and explore how participating in sports can benefit individuals on the spectrum. Through viewing film clips from the documentary Swim Team and reading current research on ASD, students will practice the scientific method of observation and data collection at their own school, focusing on sports and special needs students.

A Note for Educators: When beginning any lesson on neurodiversity, autism spectrum disorder or special needs, please be sensitive to the fact that students in your class and school community may be identified as existing somewhere on the spectrum. Remind your class of the importance of being respectful of and sensitive to all learning styles.

By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Understand the difference between correlation and cause.
  • Understand a range of relevant terms associated with autism spectrum disorder.
  • Identify and discuss the positive correlation of sports participation and success on teens with special needs by viewing clips from the documentary film Swim Team.
  • Engage in the scientific inquiry method of observation and data collection at their school.


SUBJECT AREAS: Biological Science, Psychology, Sociology, Social Studies, Health.
Relevant for units on genetics, the brain, correlation and cause, autism spectrum disorder and for teaching the scientific method.

A/V equipment to show film segments of Swim Team
Access to computers for students to complete online readings

ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED: One class period with research project for homework.

Film Clips
Clip 1: "Sports and Social Emotional Wellbeing" (7:11 min.)
The clip begins with the opening of the film and ends at 7:11 with the team's coach saying, "You have to have patience."

We meet the three main athletes in Swim Team, Mikey, Robbie and Kelvin, who are on the autism spectrum. We learn about their dedication to the Jersey Hammerheads, the Special Olympics swim team established by Mikey's parents, Michael and Maria, and the purpose and value of this swim team. We also learn more of Mikey's story.

Clip 2: "Sports and Perseverance" (3 min.)
This clip begins with Michael discussing parenting at 12:45 and ends at 15:45 with Robert's mom saying, "He's at a fourth grade level."

In Clip 2 we learn about some of the very personal challenges autism presents for Mikey and for Robbie, as well as for their parents. We also learn a bit more of Robbie's background and the difficulties he and his mother face as he matures through his high school years.

Clip 3: "The Impact of Sports" (6:02 min.)
The clip starts with Kelvin swimming at18:22 and ends with Kelvin's father saying, "the reduction of tics and anger through swimming" at 24:24.

We meet Kelvin, a teen with both autism and Tourette syndrome. We also meet his parents and learn more about their path to figuring out how best to support their son, including the role of swimming in his life.

Clip 4: "Special Olympics - Experiencing Success" (2:38 min.)
The clip begins at 1:12:10 with a title card and ends at 1:14:48 with Michael saying, "Now I can cry. You did great." (2:38 min)

Mikey is selected to participate in the national Special Olympics representing Team New Jersey.

Activity: Learning About Positive Correlation and Science
Begin class by giving an overview of correlation and its relationship to science. Direct students to the National Earth Science Teachers Association website page on correlations in science and read it as a group.

Explain to students that in this lesson they will be learning about the positive correlation between sports participation and success of teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by viewing film clips from the documentary Swim Team, conducting individual research on ASD and engaging in the process of observation and data collection at their own school.

Have the following terms posted and allow students a few minutes to research definitions and share as a class. See Autism Speaks Glossary of Terms or other links provided.

Transition to viewing a short two-minute clip created by 60 Minutes Sports that offers an overview of the positive effect of sports participation on people with ASD.

Move to showing the four clips from the documentary Swim Team. Each explores a different athlete and the role the swim team plays in their lives and the lives of their families. After each segment, students will respond in writing to the clip and convey what they learned. Feel free to use any or all of the prompts below and/or ask students to respond to one or more of the quotes provided below.

Suggested Questions

  • What thoughts, feelings or reactions do you have to this film segment?
  • What specifically did you learn about autism from this film clip?
  • What role did sports play in this individual's life and their family's life?

Suggested Quotes
Clip 1:

"When I am swimming, I feel normal. It feels amazing when I swim." - Mikey, Athlete

"At one time or another, all of our kids have been ostracized, and for them to be part of a team is incredible." - Michael, Coach and Parent

Clip 2:

"Because God made you special. Not every kid can be special. . . .That is the truth. He is special." - Michael, Coach and Parent

"For me it is not about fun time. It is about training. You need to work hard for it." - Robbie, Athlete

Clip 3:

"Kelvin was a typical developmental baby. . . After he turned two, the world changed. He lost his vocabulary. He didn't talk. . . . I couldn't understand his needs." - Patti, Athlete's Mother

"Medication has no impact. We see the reduction of tics and anger through swimming." -Stanley, Athlete's Father

Clip 4:

"We encourage the world to view our children as we do. Strong, accomplished individuals who have the potential to change the world, one perception at a time." - Announcer, Special Olympics

"He was never supposed to talk. Write his name. Swim. Here it is 11 years later and look what he is doing. The whole thing is you can't give up on your child. It is no cliché. Everybody says it, but I've lived it. I live it every day." - Michael, Coach and Parent

"I always had visions of him always staying with me. But seeing him progress and doing what he is doing, now I am second thinking this. . . . This kid has a future. He is going to do what he wants. He can do it." - Maria, Team Manager and Parent

After students complete their individual reflections, have them organize themselves in groups of three. Post the following readings on the class Google Drive, or another online shared space, and ask each student to choose one article and complete a jigsaw reading.

Students will then share their findings in small groups by discussing this question: What new information did you learn about autism from your article?

Jigsaw Articles:

National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet" https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet

UCLA Newsroom: "Brains of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder Share Similar Molecular Abnormalities" http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/brains-of-people-with-autism-spectrum-disorder-share-similar-molecular-abnormalities

Autism Speaks: "Sports, Exercise and the Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism" https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/sports-exercise-and-benefits-physical-activity-individuals-autism

Each group of students will collectively write up an observational plan to collect data on the practices of their school's athletics programs, including physical education classes, intramural sports programs and/or after-school sports programs. Students will observe the strengths and challenges in their athletic programs and assess how the programs support athletic participation for all students. In doing so, students will articulate the correlation and relationship between science and educational policy.

For background information, students may want to read this overview of a school's obligation to its students with special needs: http://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2013/07/03/what-you-need-to-know-about-students-with-special-needs-and-participation-in-interscholastic-athletics/

Possible prompts for students to consider in designing their plans:

  • How does the school promote an inclusive sports community for all students?
  • Where do we find evidence of this policy?
  • What are the observed opportunities for students to be involved?
  • What are the obstacles?
  • What are the accommodations within the school sports program for students of all abilities and interests?

General Information on Autism
Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network: Community Report on Autism - https://www.autismnj.org/document.doc?id=1793M

Autism Inclusion Resources (AIR) - http://www.autismir.com

Autism Speaks - https://www.autismspeaks.org/

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development - https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/Pages/default.aspx

Autism and the Benefits of Sports

Autism Speaks: "Eight Individuals with Autism Who've Been Impacted By Sports - https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2015/02/27/8-individuals-autism-whove-been-impacted-sports

Huffington Post: "Autism Without Fear: Don't Kid Yourself--or Rob Your Kid: Sports Matter" - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-john-carley/autism-without-fear-dont-_b_5026149.html

Special Olympics: "What is Autism?" - http://www.specialolympics.org/Sections/Who_We_Are/Autism.aspx

Sports Illustrated: "Defying Expectations, People with Autism Are Participating and Excelling in Sports" - https://www.si.com/sports-illustrated/2016/11/01/people-with-autism-spectrum-disorder-embrace-sports-athletics

STAGES Learning Materials: "Best Sports for Children with Autism" - http://blog.stageslearning.com/blog/best-sports-for-children-with-autism

U.S. News and World Report: "How Playing Sports Can Help Special Needs Kids On and Off the Field" - http://health.usnews.com/wellness/family/articles/2017-05-01/how-playing-sports-can-help-special-needs-kids-on-and-off-the-field

Positive Effect of Sports on the Brain

The Guardian: "How Physical Exercise Makes Your Brain Work Better" - https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jun/18/how-physical-exercise-makes-your-brain-work-better

The New York Times: "How Sports May Focus the Brain" - https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/how-sports-may-focus-the-brain/?mcubz=3


Next Generation Science Standards

The Swim Team Lesson offers the opportunity for science educators, or interdisciplinary teams working together, to fulfill the following key practices outlined in "The Eight Practices of Science and Engineering."

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering) 7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  7. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Specifically, and depending upon how the lesson may be adapted, science educators can meet these NextGen Science standards:

HS-LS4 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
LS4-6: Create or revise a simulation to test a solution to mitigate adverse impacts of human activity on biodiversity.

Science and Engineering Practices
Engaging in Argument from Evidence: Engaging in argument from evidence in 9-12 builds on K-8 experiences and progresses to using appropriate and sufficient evidence and scientific reasoning to defend and critique claims and explanations about the natural and designed world(s). Arguments may also come from current or historical episodes in science. Evaluate the evidence behind currently accepted explanations or solutions to determine the merits of arguments. (HS-LS4-5) Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information in 9-12.

Cross-Cutting Concepts
Cause and Effect: Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects. (HS-LS4- 2), (HS-LS4-4), (HS-LS4-5), (HS-LS4-6).

Blueshift is a team of education specialists with background in environmental and social impact work. The team recognizes and builds on the power of documentary film in reaching broad audiences to spark energy for deep and lasting social change. The team works with filmmakers, photographers and writers to develop innovative educational strategies, experiences, tools and resources that bring stories off the screen and into viewers' lives.