Skate helps French autistic children get on board
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The Vans Downtown Showdown international skateboard contest, held in Paris last weekend, drew top skateboarders from all over the world. But it also hosted an autism-friendly skate session for kids. Autistic children have lots of energy but find it hard to join in team sports; skateboarding opens doors into the social world.
Four-year-old Eliot squeals with delight as he stands up on his skateboard, on his own.
Like some 650,000 people in France, Eliot is autistic, and opportunities do outdoor collective activities in the heart of town are limited.
But today he’s one of a few dozen kids taking part in an autism-friendly skateboarding clinic run by the A.skate Foundation, from the U.S.
Co-founder Peter Karvonen guides Eliot through the moves, gently supporting his back as he goes up and down the ramps.
Karvonen says skateboarding can really help kids who would normally get stressed about not being able to follow rules in team sports, for example.
“It’s a personalised sport, rather than an organised sport with coaches and points and winning or losing”, he explains. “Skateboarding’s all about yourself and there’s really no wrong way to skateboard.”
And for kids who sometimes have a hard time making friends, it can improve their social skills.
“When you can skate on your own with other people, you can kind of graze into making new friends because you’re skating by yourself but with people as well.”
The A.skate Foundation was set up by Krys Worley, after she noticed her own autistic son responded positively to getting on a board.
“When he was about five, I put a board in his hand and he took some lessons and it was just a connection he had that I had not seen before,” she explains.
Worley’s son is now eleven and skates regularly. “When he’s stressed out he just gets on his board,” she says.
Like many kids with autism, her son is a high-pressure seeker, and one form of therapy in the US consists of wearing clothes weighted down with sand to increase the pressure sensation on the body.
But her son doesn’t like wearing the vests because it sets him apart. So the movement, the riding in skateboarding gives him the sensation of pressure.
“Skateboarding offers that type of sensation for them because when you’re going up and down ramps you’re dropping 17 times your weight on that board and they’re feeling that pressure so I think that’s another reason why kids with autism are so drawn to skateboarding.”
A.skate now run clinics all over the States but this was their first visit to France.
Pascale Comte looks delighted watching her son Eliot enjoying himself as he savours the vibrations, the speed and the wind running through his hair.
“He loves sitting down on the board,” she says “and today I’m really happy because for the first time he stood up without holding onto anything...it’s extraordinary.”
She says there aren’t many activities in France that autistic children can take part in. So she has set up her own.
In March this year she founded an association to help kids with autism called Ninoo.
Inspired by A.skate, they’ve already held a skateboard workshop as well as pony, yoga and cake-making activities.
Comte makes a point of mixing autistic and non-autistic children in the workshops: an approach that’s more common in the Anglo-Saxon world than here in France.
And while there’s still a long way to go in improving understanding of autism and acceptance of children who live with it, skateboarders are better-equipped than some to help in that process, says Peter Karvonen.
“The way people look on skateboarders is not always positive you know. I grew up being kind of an outcast, an outsider and I feel like a lot of these kids are too, socially. So it kind of goes hand in hand and now skateboarding is really popular and these kids are the cool kids out here on skateboards.
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