Autism and Curling
The title does not say it all.
Most of my efforts in attempting to support persons on the Autism Spectrum have been to include therapeutic guidance during real life activities. At MGH Aspire (MGH Aspire) we run camps for children and lead internships for adults and a variety of opportunities for the age groups in between. Teaching in isolation is difficult in general and quite challenging for persons with challenges with theory of mind. In vivo learning leads to mastery and future success.
In the typical nerd fashion, I found the sport of curling fascinating to watch during the Winter Olympics. Like golf, curling is a sport that can be played by not-your-typical athlete. Like chess, the strategy of game with the nuances of spins of the stone and condition of the ice (and so on!) makes it a thinking person’s game. A sport that can be played by average humans but that can be excelled at by the use of intellect is my idea of fun and opportunity.
My athletic career consisted almost entirely of being a fan of local sports teams and being a spectator at my truly athletic daughter’s games for many years. When she left college, my professional spectator career ended. As a lark, I joined a (the!) local curling club in my area.
What I didn’t realize was that curling has a tremendously positive, and structured, social aspect. Teams consist of four curlers who, before every match, say “good curling” while shaking the hand of each opponent and each teammate. After each game the teams “broomstack” with each other. Broomstacking is when the teams meet for drinks and socialization at a circular table that seats exactly eight; the four from each team. This process occurs worldwide in every level of the sport.
In addition to the structured social aspect, communication is the key to successful play. Without going into the details too much, each of the four players has very specific roles for every shot. The shooter “throws” a 40+ pound stone approximately 120 feet while two “sweepers” aid the stones trajectory and distance while the skip, at the other end of the rink, yells out directions. Placement of the stone is dependent on the team’s verbal and nonverbal communication each second of the stone’s travels.
After I became more comfortable with the game, I realized that curling is an ideal sporting opportunity for many on the autism spectrum. While many curling facilities can be loud, the flow of the game is very predictable: one team throws a stone and then the other until all 16 are thrown and then the next inning (end) begins with the same order occurring all over again. Given the importance of communication, specific verbal and nonverbal gestures are preplanned and predictable. Teams often talk about how to improve their communication on ice.
For those of us who enjoy “restricted interests” curling offers an abundance of topics on which one could spend a lifetime of analysis. What makes the stones curl? How does sweeping affect the ice? Players wear stopwatches and time each others’ throws and keep extensive notes about how each stone moves in various ice conditions at different speeds. Not all curlers do this but the opportunities are endless.
In 2015, I invited local independent schools who have a large group of students who would have been considered to have “Asperger Syndrome” just a few years ago. The students ranged in age from 12-16. The response has been fantastic. Initially, most students cannot envision throwing such a large stone such a long distance. We deal with the fear of falling, social anxiety, and fear of failure. At the end of ten weeks of two-hour sessions, the students independently make teams, shake hands, play games and broomstack with comfort and fun. Success breeds within them a sense of mastery and acknowledgement that they can connect with others with great enjoyment.
Curling may not be for everyone, but it is an accessible sport in which many on the spectrum can find success and connection with others.
D. Scott McLeod, Ph.D.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.