Concerns ‘the next national stars’ are being shut out of sporting clubs due to a lack of inclusivity for athletes with autism

Six-year-old Ava Renwood is an aspiring athlete with big dreams of a career in sports.

But her mother, Ashleigh Brook, fears her options are limited by a lack of inclusivity and understanding for athletes with autism.

The Brisbane mum said her daughter “lives and dies” for her weekly gymnastics, cheerleading and dance classes.

“Ava wakes up in the morning [at] like 7 a.m., and it’s ‘What gym classes do I have today?’” Ms Brook said.

After reaching out to local sports clubs to take her daughter to the next sporting level, Ms Brook was advised to send her to disabled-only groups.

“It’s great that they have a department for these athletes, but again, [it’s] not included,” she said.

“[It’s] very much like putting them in their own bubble.”

Mum Ashleigh and Ava smile
Ava’s mother, Ashleigh Brook, says there needs to be more inclusive clubs for children with disabilities.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

With Ava eager to go head-to-head with her peers, Ms Brook is unsure she can find an inclusive club next season.

“It’s one of those situations where I wonder if there’s going to be anything somewhere,” Ms Brook said.

Sporting events for students of all ability levels

Charlotte Kanowski holds her medal
Charlotte Kanowski with her medal after winning the Queensland School Sports Triathlon multi-class Autism Without Intellectual Disability.(ABC News: Marton Dobras)

14-year-old Charlotte Kanowski is an accomplished triathlon, marathon and aquathon athlete.

She was also the first and only student to compete in the Queensland School Sports multi-divisional Autism Triathlon without an intellectual disability category.

“I was proud of myself when I got the medal and finished the race,” said Charlotte.

Charlotte Kanowski in competition.
Charlotte Kanowski competes in the Noosa Triathlon.(delivered)

Multi-class events enable students with disabilities to participate in an inclusive environment.

The events are currently offered in the disciplines of triathlon, cross country, swimming and athletics.

The Department of Education said this year for the first time that students with autism can also compete in multi-class events at the Queensland School Sport State Swimming Championships and State Triathlon.

Charlotte’s mother, Jessica Kanowski, said creating inclusive sports environments is about making “reasonable adjustments.”

“I think this multi-class gives them a chance to try it, but in a comfortable environment,” she said.

“Ultimately you want it to be fully integrated and for all the kids to go together and try.

“We need to be inclusive and give all of our children access so they can achieve their dreams.”

The Brisbane mum said she’s been fortunate to find inclusive sports for her daughter, but it hasn’t come without challenges.

“It can be difficult to find a trained instructor who knows what appropriate adjustments to make,” she said.

Charlotte Kanowski with her parents and little sister
Charlotte Kanowski with her parents and little sister – who all support her in her competitions.(ABC News: Marton Dobras)

Ms Kanowski said it’s important for coaches to understand that all children on the spectrum have different “sensory profiles”.

“Because of that, it’s a spectrum, they’re all different,” she said.

“When [Charlotte] has a moment or may have a breakdown that it is normal for them.

“It’s how her feelings overflow and how she expresses them, and that’s part of being autistic.”

Seeing her daughter shine in competitions fills Ms. Kanowski with pride.

“I feel like she’s out there trying and I’m really proud of her,” she said.

Sports clubs are afraid of the unknown

Special Olympics Queensland coordinator Kim Lawley said many sports clubs are “afraid of the unknown” when it comes to athletes with autism.

“Once you put them on a track, field or court, they’re athletes and they want to compete and train,” she said.

“It just breaks down those barriers and those fears of the unknown.”

She said many athletes with disabilities struggle to get into sports groups, including her own brother.

“There was no opportunity for my brother to play sports, so we made it possible for him [at the Special Olympics]’ said Ms Lawley.

Kim smiles on an athletics track.
Special Olympics’ Kim Lawley says many athletes with autism struggle to get into sports groups.(ABC News: Sarah Richards)

She said Special Olympics helped create inclusive sports opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities and autism, with her brother playing basketball and golf statewide.

“It’s about educating coaches, it’s about inclusion and it’s reminding coaches across Australia, around the world, that they are athletes,” she said.

Susie Bennett-Yeo, national athlete leadership coordinator for Special Olympics Australia, said she hoped one day athletes with intellectual disabilities and autism could be accepted and welcomed by every sports team.

“I’d like to see some of the athletes that I know just go to their local basketball competition and they’re like, ‘I’d like to play basketball,’ and they’re like, ‘That’s awesome,'” she said.

“The next national stars” fall through the cracks

The Australian Sport Commission spokesman said he believed everyone should be able to participate in sport.

“It is important that sports federations, from local clubs to national sports organisations, reflect the diversity in the communities to which they belong,” said a spokesman.

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