Gym Hell

Katharine Kroeber Wiley

Imagine a girl sitting in the corner of the gym during PE, her hands over her ears, maybe rocking or making a keening noise: she’s trying to tune out the intolerable chaos of running bodies, echoing noises, glaring lights. She gets blamed for disturbing the other children, and her parents get an angry phone call.

Physical exercise is a great thing. It can help autistic kids organize their thoughts, attend to their work, reduce stress. Particularly for autistic kids who are good athletes, these activities can boost confidence and serve as a social ice-breakers. Some manage gym classes without any accommodations, some need a few adaptations, some thrive with specific Adaptive Sports Programs. But many parents, or budding autistic self-advocates, are unaware of the wide range of options they can request, get turned down flat, and don’t know how to fight back. So far too many autistic kids are simply thrown into regular gym class and expected to fit in. No matter how much families, or kids themselves, protest that given difficulty processing social cues, team sports only set some autistic children up for failure (and for the condemnation of their peers and far too often their teachers), we are told that gym class is good, not just for the exercise but because it teaches good sportsmanship and (ahem!) socialization.

Schools present gym as Emily Post in shorts and sneakers, but for many autistic kids it isn’t; it’s an exercise in misery. For some autistic kids, everything in an ordinary gym class — the numbers, noise, confusion, competition, teamwork — works against them.

And sometimes gym is used as a cover for worse things. I’ve heard so many stories from parents of this kind of abuse via gym class, that they play in a loop in the back of my mind.

  • “Hi, this is the school nurse. You should come pick up your son. He has a bloody nose, and he hit another child. You really need to teach him not to attack other children.”
  • “How did he get the bloody nose?”
  • “Well … all the kids were throwing the balls at him in dodge ball in gym class, and he got hit in the face.”
  • “Do you think maybe that’s why he hit the other child? Maybe my son felt attacked.”
  • “It’s just a game!”
  • “Hi, this is the gym teacher. You need to discipline your son. The other kids were playing a game and he started to attack them.”
  • “Would this be the ‘game’ where they all chase him calling him rude names and yelling ‘we’re gonna GET you!’ and pin him to the floor?”
  • “Ummm … it’s just a game.” 

It’s difficult to convey to teachers and administrators just how confusing and overwhelming even a regular gym class can be, that even games with better rules than dodge ball can be baffling — why does who is on ‘your’ team change every day? Why is it always a different goal? Where are the boundaries, and why are they different this game from yesterday’s game?…

I’ve often wanted to throw school personnel into a situation of total chaos, with people yelling at them in a foreign language, with gongs and drums banging and strobe lights flashing, and people hurling large objects at them and shoving them, and see how they react. Every time they get hit or shoved others would applaud and cheer, and the people in charge would blame them, not the attackers. Then do it a second day, with different people as the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones.

And then demand to know why they failed to understand the game or to get properly ‘socialized’.

Maybe if they had to live in hell a little bit themselves, teachers and administrators would be less eager to force our kids to live through gym hell, and more willing to look at options.