Focusing on Strengths, Not Disabilities

Recreation for individuals with autism is entering a new era, says Matt Schinelli, founder of New Jersey All People Equal, which provides movement services, including for individuals with special needs, as well as professional-development courses for physical education teachers and coaches.

“Today the emphasis is on inclusion,” says Schinelli, who has taught physical education in Livingston for 15 years and has a master’s degree in adaptive physical education. “Instead of concentrating on how the child’s disability affects all the skills needed to play soccer, we focus on building the child’s core strength so that he will be able to use that skill in playing on a team that includes kids with and without disabilities.”

For example, says Schinelli, “if a child is good at kicking a ball but not running, we will concentrate on developing his kicking skills.”

The inclusive approach also ensures that kids remain motivated to participate in sports—whether they have disabilities or not. “Many kids start out playing soccer or basketball at age 6 or 8, but by the time they turn 13 or 14, few have the skills necessary to qualify for their high school team so they abandon sports,” says Schinelli. “Inclusive sports may not look like the typical soccer or basketball game, but they give everyone a chance to utilize what they do best and have fun.”

In the past, communities balked at providing recreation for children with special needs because they assumed that programs would be costly and difficult to administer.

“Not so,” says Schinelli. “We have taken our program of inclusion to the trenches: high schools, group homes, anywhere individuals with and without disabilities need recreation. We offer brief courses to teach physical education teachers and coaches how to adapt existing programs and establish new ones that approach games in innovative ways.”

The inclusion movement will achieve a milestone this fall, when Cornerstone Montclair opens in Upper Montclair. The 3,200-square-foot building will be home to the New Jersey All People Equal Inclusive Movement Center, and will also house retailers that will offer job training and employment for people with and without disabilities.

“We hope that, by breaking down the barriers between recreation and work, Cornerstone Montclair will become a model for other New Jersey communities that want to include people with disabilities in every facet of the community,” says Wendy Lacey, whose family owns the building.

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