Sports and Fitness: My Interview with Greg Connors, Recreation Coordinator and Ernie Els #GameON Autism® Sports and Fitness Expert.
One of the first building blocks in starting Els for Autism Foundation® programs was how we redefined sports as a therapy in addition to music therapy. The founder of our Foundation, Ernie Els, is a Hall of Fame Professional Golfer. He took his great namesake to give back through our largest annual fundraising event, the Els for Autism Golf Challenge Series, and the establishment of the Ernie Els #GameON Autism® Golf Program. Participants learn golf skills while practicing specific autism learning concepts, including communication, emotion regulation, motor and social skills. Before The Els Center of Excellence campus was open, we test these concepts out at the Golf Clinics at the various Golf Challenge Events across the U.S. and Canada.
As the Foundation grew, we were able to export the golf program on a national level and then in countries around the world including Scotland, Ireland, and Thailand. We began a virtual training program, with assistance from the Leadbetter Academy, for organizations to be able to get credentialed to run the golf program once the Els for Autism Recreation Coordinator approved the training organization. This program is called the Official Program Provider Program (OPP). We have had great success having the OPP ambassadors all over the world teach the game of golf to individuals with ASD.
Once the Foundation had success with the golf program, began a training curriculum for OPPs to be credentialed in teaching tennis to individuals with ASD. In 2022, we added a new element to the mix with fitness, and, with the Recreation Coordinator, Greg Connors, we piloted a very successful program and are writing a manual for the fitness program. You can attend the 2023 Re-CREATING RECREATION Conference as a Supplemental Intervention for Individuals with ASD on March 23 & 24, 2023 to experience active demonstrations on both golf and fitness.
Greg Connors is from Philadelphia where he taught seventh grade writing at a charter school, with his English degree, while earning his Master’s in Special Education from Chestnut Hill College. After receiving his Master’s, he served in the Special Education Department as a Case Manager and Small Group Intervention Teacher. His next step was working at an Ed-Tech Startup in the Disability Employment Space.
But he has always been passionate about sports, fitness and yoga and loves to stay active and spend time with his five-year-old Husky mix, Eddie. He is also giving his Keynote Speech, which will explain how the Ernie Els #GameON Autism Sports curricula are impacting the lives of individuals with autism and reshaping the perception of recreation as an effective and supplemental therapy for these individuals, on March 24th, and also running a panel on Sports and Fitness.
- Elaborate on what your role within the Foundation is.
Answer: As Recreation Services Coordinator, I am responsible for the planning, execution, and growth of all Recreation Services offerings, which includes on-site programs, such as our daily after-school classes (Tennis, Chorus, Fitness, Golf, Yoga, Music, Kickball, Art, and Dance); our virtual clubs, including Spectrum Book Club and Connections Club; any Special Events for clients/families, such as Friday Movie Nights; all camps we offer, including Spring Break and Summer Camp; the Ernie Els #GameON Autism clinic offerings at local and national Golf Challenge events; and all Ernie Els #GameON Autism Sports programs and Official Program Provider training for Golf, Tennis, and Fitness.
- What impact do you think our Recreation Programs are making with individuals with ASD? Why do you think that is?
Answer: Recreation activities, whether sports/fitness or leisure-based, offer opportunities for individuals with ASD to stay healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally. Beyond the obvious physiological benefits of fitness and exercise, participants receive benefits in the mental and emotional aspects of their lives by building relationships with others, reducing stress and anxiety, building confidence and self-esteem, and learning to problem solve both individually and w/ peers.
- Can you explain the Ernie Els #GameON Autism® set of Programs?
Answer: The Ernie Els #GameON Autism Sports Programs – Golf, Tennis, and Fitness – offer outside organizations and individuals the opportunity to learn from experts in our field and to teach our research-backed, evidence-based curricula. To become an Official Program Provider (OPP) of the Ernie Els #GameON Autism Sports programs, other organizations and/or individuals complete an online training and assessment, complete a Post-Training Call and consult, and collaborate with me to determine a plan of action for their coaching/instruction.
Each sport has a specific manual with instructional lessons and an accompanying Resource Library that OPPs can utilize for teaching materials, visual aids, templates, and other resources. I am currently working on expanding the scope of our training process, and we will soon be incorporating tiered memberships into the OPP structure that provide individuals/organizations the opportunity to receive additional training via on-site visits with myself and/or clinicians in Speech, OT, etc., as well as premium webinars, newsletter content and access to other current OPPs via a community forum.
If anyone is interested in becoming an OPP in any of our sports, they can email email@example.com for more information.
- What makes exporting our best practices in Golf, Fitness and Tennis Program so important?
Answer: If we want individuals with autism to continue to have inclusive and integrated community-based experiences we must train and educate coaches in a variety of sports with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully teach individuals with autism. They need to understand autism and the accompanying behaviors they will likely encounter, and they must be prepared with the requisite knowledge to not only teach the sport-specific skills that individuals need to learn but also the autism learning concepts that are embedded in our lessons and curricula, such Taking Turns, Communicating Needs, Sharing Equipment, and other social-emotional skills that can be challenging for individuals with autism to master.
- What advice would you give to coaches who may oversee any individuals with ASD?
Answer: I’m confident that any advice, tips, or knowledge that coaches would need to successfully administer programs can be found in the Resource Library specific to each sport. But, generally speaking, I think that coaches and volunteers working with individuals with autism would benefit from doing all of the following: understanding their participants’ specific medical information, as well as any sensory or communication needs (e.g. AAC devices); ensuring that they utilize simple language free of things like idioms or colloquial expressions when communicating directions or providing feedback; and utilizing visual aids/schedules and referencing them frequently to prepare participants for transitions during and between activities/stations.
- You are giving a keynote speech and running a panel at the Re-Creating Recreation Conference, can you give us a preview of what you would be speaking on?
Answer: My Keynote Address on Day 2 of the conference will offer insight into the how and why of our Recreation Services offerings, specifically our Ernie Els #GameON Autism Sports Programs. I will share how our programs have filled a void for individuals in the autism community and their families. Our methodology for embedding evidence-based practices into our instruction will be explained in detail, and I will also highlight some of the success stories of our participants. Joining me during this keynote will be Mr. Cae Menai-Davis of the UK-based Golf Trust, who has been a strong international partner in helping to address this void in the autism community and in spreading best practices in England and elsewhere.
- Can you preview the guests that we have on the panel?
Answer: We are excited to welcome the following professionals from all over the world:
- Eric Chessen (Exercise/Fitness)
- Joshua Deer (Golf)
- Jason Miletsky (Exercise/Fitness)
- Maricarmen Saleta (Aquatics)
- Tiago Toledo (Exercise/Fitness/Aquatics)
These experienced educators and professionals will share their knowledge and best practices for instructing individuals with autism, and our panel will focus on distilling for attendees the successful development of goals-based plans, the best practices for achieving the results of those plans, not only in their specific sports/areas of expertise but across disciplines, as well as any other general advice or information that they have learned from working with individuals with autism.
- Just recently the Board of Directors and the Leadership Team announced a new Capital Campaign for the Recreation Complex, that would include an air-conditioned gymnasium, Aquatic Center and a Splash Pad, how will this recreation complex enhance the recreation programming that the Foundation is able to offer?
Answer: The new Recreation Complex will provide immeasurable value to the Foundation and to the families/clients we serve. As we know, on any given day here on campus in Jupiter, there are nearly 300 individuals with autism all across the lifespan receiving education, instruction, and/or other therapies and services across many departments. The Recreation Complex, which will provide a sensory-friendly, air-conditioned environment, will allow Recreation Services and other departments in the organization the much-needed space to not only continue offering our current roster of activities but also increase the size/frequency of those classes and add even more offerings, such as pickleball, basketball, and swimming/aquatic therapy/water safety. As we know living in South Florida, we experience intense heat, high humidity, and frequent heavy rainfall that interrupt and, at times, prevent activities outdoors. This state-of-the-art facility will provide much needed space to continue offering the highest quality recreational and therapeutic services to individuals and their families no matter what outdoor conditions may be. Additionally, this state-of-the-art facility will serve as a hurricane shelter for the local community.
I hope that whoever reads the blog will learn about the ways we are giving back to the Autism Community. And I hope that whoever is interested will join us for the 2023 Re-CREATING RECREATION Conference. It will be a showcase as to why we are an authoritative source when it comes to the values of recreation for individuals with ASD and other developmental disorders.
My Health and Well-Being: A Journal Entry
We talk about health a lot, but what we should do is see the connection between physical health and mental health. One doesn’t work without the other. A low mental health may end up harming your physical health, which is unfortunate, because over time a stronger physical health may end up complementing a stronger mental health.
For me, what compliments both is being able to travel. Two years ago I recorded, mentally, that I had been to all 50 states. While it may sound like it’s not doing much, I had to hike through Utah’s National Parks, Sun Valley, Idaho, skied in Maine, and did some walking tours. At the end of the year, I took a cruise to 6 Caribbean Islands, but I exercised muscle for most of the trip, and lost weight too. You want to look at exercise and losing weight as self-discovery and as actual discovery.
I had a stroke in December which affected my communication and expressive voice, yet I felt like I rebounded quickly because I needed some fresh air and the ability to travel on the cruise I mentioned previously. Travel is my way of living and whenever I can take a trip I feel so much better, includingbeing able to take short drives to see friends and socialize.
People with ASD are not always disinclined to socialize. Maybe they need more breaks, like I do, from socializing so much. Due to crowded outings, loud music, and having to fend for oneself to come up with socialization, situations like this can be stressful, especially when we are misunderstood because you have ASD. A proper report helps make the case that the way we do things, like much of our lives, is different – https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/autistic-people-want-socialize-they-just-may-show-it-differently. When you have individuals who get it, and staffers who understand the way we are, you have a systemic compassion.
Like our charter schools, our recreation programs, which a student can enroll in too, are meant to bring individuals with ASD together without any judgment. Part of what we do is redefine sports therapy. To have an outlet for individuals with ASD to learn to love themselves and to learn how to socialize, interact, and make friends is valuable along with learning a new sport.
That is why Els for Autism® Staff is hosting the first Recreational Conference – THE RE-CREATING RECREATION CONFERENCE, this year on March 23rd and 24th. We will also have our 5K Roots and Ruts run for charity on March 25th. Our categories are Healthy Living and Well Being, Sports and Fitness, and Arts and Leisure – we have embraced the importance of work for individuals with ASD, and now we embrace the concept of play.
Even if one is not always physically active, leisure activities can be helpful, and stimulating to build up what we call our special interests. Our Conference is not always about physically demanding activities, it’s really about searching for a purpose, for a sense of responsibility and improving each step we take to fulfill a greater sense of Abraham Maslow’s Self-Actualization one day at a time. I always would say if one can transfer unhealthy eating to some form of a hobby and use that hobby to also exercise (In my case – video game fitness) while eating healthier than it is a job well done, and also don’t forget to sleep healthily too.
For any feedback, you can contact me at Merrick.Egber@elsforautism.org