The Delight of Working With Autistic Referees

The Delight of Working With Autistic Referees

To celebrate World Autism Acceptance Week and the unique privilege of working with referees with diagnosed or suspected Autism, I have written this, very special edition, of The Third Team Blog.

Helen – A Case Study

The following story is based on real life scenarios from my work with several referees with Autism but does not refer to one particular official and any resemblance to a known referee is entirely coincidental.

Helen is a 24-year-old Level 4 referee. Until transitioning to university she had had the same referee coach for almost six years. Mike, her new coach is struggling to understand her.

Recently, after a session, the physiotherapist spoke to Mike about Helen’s badly bruised tendon, Mike wasn’t sure why Helen didn’t tell him herself. Helen believes she did tell him, but Mike can’t recall a conversation. Mike can’t tell when Helen is in pain by looking at her because she doesn’t show it.

During her first week at training, Helen had fallen and hit her knee hard, when the physiotherapist booked her off training sessions due to injury, she burst into tears and shouted down the phone at both Mike and the physio. Mike thought she was both childish and decided she was ‘badly’ behaved.

Helen asks “why” a lot when asked to do things, and Mike suspects she doesn’t trust him. He feels he has bent over backwards trying to answer her questions, and yet she never seems to thank him or appreciate how much he is trying. She does work hard, but she doesn’t smile much and rarely joins in banter with colleagues.

Helen has a psychologist she is working with regarding anxiety, and the psychologist (with Helen’s permission) has asked to meet with Mike. Mike is surprised as this seems to have come out of the blue, Helen is doing okay as a referee, although he finds her frustrating to work with.

The psychologist told Mike that Helen was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 14. She has always been anxious. She loves officiating, this is her main interest, and the rest of her life will revolve around refereeing. Helen is somebody who is desperate to get things right and to follow the rules in life, but right now she isn’t sure what the rules are or when she’s getting things right or wrong.

She loves to understand the facts, science, and biomechanics behind her training sessions and likes detail focused and specific corrections. Her belief is that if she isn’t being corrected; the coach isn’t interested. The incident where Helen hit her knee hard followed a “pep talk” by the coach, during which he told the entire training group of officials that “nobody was trying”. Helen therefore pushed herself to exhaustion. On finding this out, Mike was surprised, everyone knows Helen is a hard worker. She doesn’t chit chat or gossip during training sessions, surely, she would know his remark didn’t apply to her?

Helen is struggling with sleep, the changes and demands of her work, and managing nutrition around her refereeing and training. The psychologist explained that Helen becomes distressed if she isn’t able to officiate or if she has to miss any training sessions, and that this can become overwhelming for her.

When he was told of Helen’s diagnosis, Mike’s first thoughts were, “she doesn’t look Autistic”, yes, she’s difficult, really quiet, doesn’t show what she’s feeling, but she’s intelligent, dedicated and in some ways pretty normal.

What is Autism?

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition, whereby the individual shows differences in social skills, communication and often intense and restricted interests. Individuals with Autism, or Autistic individuals (if person-first language is preferred) are very different from one and other, and intellectual levels vary greatly; from profoundly learning disabled up to academically gifted. So, be aware that because you’ve met one person with Autism, it doesn’t mean that everybody with Autism will look or seem the same. In females, Autism often shows itself very subtly. Females with Autism are often missed because they can work hard to fit in and hide their differences. Individuals with Autism have a higher prevalence of some specific learning disabilities like Dyslexia or Dyspraxia, as well as ADHD.

Autism & Referees – The Overlap

If one thinks about the qualities of a referee, some of these include perseverance, detailed focus, and commitment to officiating and training; well known Autistic strengths. Individuals with Autism often have intense interests and will hyperfocus, persist and engage with one area of interest for a very long time. They are able to do seemingly quite repetitive tasks over and over again with little boredom.

There is very little research regarding Autism and sport, and it seems to have been the assumption that athletes are unlikely to have Autism, or that Autistic individuals are unlikely to be referees. Most research is confined to physically disabled officials and suggests the presence of motor skill difficulties.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Autistic individuals are able to perform predictable, repetitive movements to a high level of skill, with practice, most evidence at this moment in time is anecdotal e.g. practitioners with knowledge and experience having worked with elite referees and seen the signs and overlaps.

Students were assessed in higher education, and noted higher than expected levels of athletic achievement in students with Dyslexia or a combination of Dyslexia and Dyspraxia. The students in this study often preferred individual sports, but not exclusively so.

It appears that Autism and neurodivergence in refereeing are areas that warrant further research.

Helen’s Relationship With Her Coach

  1. Helen has had a significant transition to a new, potentially frightening and unpredictable environment. It can be hard for her to understand and pick up the unwritten social rules within a new situation, so she is trying hard to understand this within a number of new environments at once; her new officiating environment, working environment, and accommodation.

  2. Unless Helen knows somebody well, she can take a while to pick up other people’s nonverbal cues (body language and facial expressions) and intentions. So, if a coach shouts at their referees, she might interpret this as anger or that she is personally doing something wrong. She might not say this to others, but will feel incredibly anxious about making mistakes.

  3. When the coach tells the entire training squad of officials that “nobody is trying”, how could Helen be expected to know this might not include her? She was told “nobody is trying”, which surely means everybody needs to work harder, including her.

  4. Helen might not show many visible reactions to being anxious, stressed or in pain until the situation reaches a certain point. Her reaction might appear as a meltdown that’s come from nowhere. It hasn’t come from nowhere.

What Would Help?

  1. Helen and her coach, Mike, should get to know each other as individuals. Autism comes with many strengths, strengths like determination, persistence, focus, attention to detail, self-reliance, motivation, problem solving, enhanced memory. Other strengths (that can be misinterpreted) include being critical, questioning, logical, and curious. Mike needs to understand the strengths behind being questioned.

  2. Mike should help Helen to understand the implicit “rules”, expectations and exceptions surrounding their relationship. He would also benefit from understanding his own emotional responses to Helen’s behaviour.

  3. Mike should be careful to avoid making sweeping statements about the team, such as “nobody is trying” or “we’re going to stop appointing you to fixtures”. Some referees benefit from negative coaching strategies like these, but many, including neurotypical officials, don’t.

  4. Mike should be explicit about training goals session expectations. For example, Helen might need to be explicitly told “trying hard does not always equal maximum effort”. Helping her to understand the rationale behind training and reminding her of the focus for each session would enable Helen to better gauge and monitor her own effort, making consistent improvement rather than gradual burn out a more likely outcome.

  5. Perfectionism should be respected as it can very easily become unhealthy in an Autistic official, there is a fine line between striving to achieve goals and rigid, self-critical expectations. Consistently setting, adapting and communicating smart and realistic training goals is critically important.

Other Considerations

  1. There is an overlap between hypermobility and Autism. The currently limited research suggests a possible increase in injury risk.

  2. Pain thresholds can vary among Autistic referees, but due to sensory perception differences, some Autistic officials will have unusually high pain thresholds. They may not notice when they’re in pain or injured.

  3. There is an overlap between Autism, picky eating and poor “interoceptive” awareness (e.g. a lack of sensitivity to tiredness and hunger cues). The use of wearable and other technologies (e.g. heart rate monitoring, monitoring of training load), as well as utilising and communicating ‘the facts’ behind the feelings, can prove incredibly helpful for Autistic referees.

At The Third Team I work individually and in collaboration with different professionals where I have developed workshops and 1-2-1 sessions associated with Resilience and Mental Toughness Development to help referees. The workshops and 1-2-1 sessions are interactive, where referees are encouraged to open up and share their experiences to help themselves and each other.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about my workshops or 1-2-1 sessions and how I could help you or your officials.

Best Wishes,

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Nathan Sherratt

Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team

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Nathan Sherratt

Nathan Sherratt, Referee Educator, Resilience Trainer and Managing Director of The Third Team.  A Mental Toughness Practitioner based in Tyne & Wear, North East England.