You’ve probably seen the video: a boy with autism has been his high school team’s manager for years. During the last game of his senior year, they decide to let him play, and guess what? The kid hits five 3-point shots! The crowd goes wild, everyone gets a little teary at this big gesture by the team to let him play.

But a lot of other people are asking: why wasn’t he playing on the team all along?

That question and others like it is what recently led the United States Government Accounting Office to study the issue of students with disabilities and physical education. What they found is that special education students are participating in their school sports programs, but at “consistently lower rates than students without disabilities.” They also found that school districts are not really sure of the best way to include students with disabilities, nor how much they have to.

It’s been well established that sports and physical activity are an important aspect of a child’s physical and intellectual development. The same holds true for children with disabilities. Participating in sports and recreation has the further benefit of promoting inclusion for kids in special education.

Not only is it good for kids, PE for students in special education is required by law: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), states that physical education is a required service for students with a specific learning disability or developmental delay.

So how do PE teachers include kids with special needs, and how do parents ensure that their kids are getting the access they’re entitled to?

Matt Laughlin is an elementary school physical education teacher in Redmond, Washington. He also teaches an adaptive PE class. “Special needs are definitely a challenge,” he said, particularly when the PE teacher isn’t included in any discussions of the child’s needs.

Laughlin says that he has come up with creative ways to accommodate and modify the PE classes so they can work for all the kids. He has some younger kids with autism, for instance, who get upset if they’re tagged in a game of tag, so he gives them a job of being in charge of keeping track of who is ‘it’, so they’re part of the game and running around, but with no tagging. For kids with physical disabilities, he might use a balloon instead of a ball when playing volleyball, for instance.

He uses his adaptive PE time as a way to pre-teach the kids the skills they’ll need in the regular PE class. Several weeks before a unit on soccer, for instance, he will start to teach the kids kicking, how to throw the ball in, and will go over the rules. All of the practice makes it easier for them to blend in with their classmates when they’re playing the game.

Cheryl Richardson, Senior Program Manager at the Physical Education at National Association for Sport and Physical Education and a former physical education teacher and coach said that staffing was always an issue for her trying to include students with disabilities in PE.

“Safety and supervision can be challenging,” she said. She’s had students run out of the class, and with 25 other kids to keep track of it was hard. If the child doesn’t have an aide, Richardson sometimes pairs them up a typical student. The peer helper model also helped teach social skills, Richardson found.

Aside from the physical benefits, Laughlin sees another benefit to PE. “PE serves as a way to bring kids together,” he said. A child who may be struggling academically may be a gifted athlete. “They get this time to shine,” Laughlin said.

Laughlin and Richardson offer these tips to parents to help their kids get the most out of PE:

  • Team play: Make sure the PE teacher is included in your child’s annual team meeting. That way the teacher will be aware specifically of your child’s issues and can plan the way to make the class work for them.
  • Communicate early and often: If the teacher wasn’t in the team meeting, make sure to set up a meeting early in the school year to talk to the teacher about your child’s needs and challenges. As the school year goes on, make sure to check in with the teacher. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Richardson said.
  • Get involved: Volunteer in the class. PE teachers lament that there is not enough staffing for them to offer the individualized attention that some kids need, so any more adults in the room helps.
  • Look outside of PE: Laughlin’s school has an informal running program that lots of kids with special needs have been successful in. “For a lot of kids this is the first time they’re part of a team,” he said. If your school doesn’t have something like it, start one up!
  • Just ask: If your child wants to play on a community recreation team, call the program and explain your child’s needs. They may have a well-established program to assist kids with special needs, or they may be willing to start one.
  • Outside of school: There are sports programs specifically for children with physical and cognitive disabilities, such as Special Olympics and Miracle League. Also kids of all abilities can sharpen their skills at sports camps where they may get more individual attention.