One of the sweetest sounds is the laughter of children playing, an echo of what childhood should always be like —a carefree time. But it’s not quite the same for children with autism who have problems communicating and relating to others because they tend to lack certain social skills. For these children, playing with others does not come easily and playing on a team is especially hard.
Participating in a team sport is a rare opportunity for too many of these children, thought Ellen Viola Thalhamer III, an applied behavioral analyst (ABA) and special education teacher who specializes in home education and training parents in ABA practices. Ellen had found that many parents were frustrated that they could not find sports programs geared to their children’s needs.
“The special education league wasn’t organized enough for children with autism,” Ellen says. That’s why she chose to start her own program. She knows first-hand the emotional rewards from working with children with autism and she wanted to share that joy with others.
Ellen’s first connection with a child with autism was when she was just 13 years old. She had volunteered to play with a child who was said to have “behavioral problems.” Being with that child was a life-altering experience for Ellen, and she vowed to dedicate her life to helping children with autism. “It was my calling,” she says.
Three years ago, Ellen founded Team Heroes, a sports team for children with autism.
“I felt bad for parents who had nowhere to go,” she says. The program, which is run in an ABA type format, is modified to fit each child’s individual needs. Many studies have shown that specific ABA techniques can help children with autism learn how to communicate and develop relationships.
Team Heroes offers soccer and T-ball programs for kids with autism between the ages of three and nine and their siblings. The nine-week program costs $35 per child and is held in Huntington area schools. Ellen said special accommodations will be made if a family needs financial assistance, and that no one will be turned away.
Playing sports is considered a bridge to socialization and can actually improve autistic children’s behavior in groups. Soccer can be played by children as young as three years old, and while they may be running and laughing during a game, they’re also learning how to listen and follow directions, how to take turns, and how to play together as a team. Children with autism may also benefit from the individualized instruction giving by Team Heroes’ coaches and volunteers, which include Ellen’s sister Tracy, a coach at St. Joseph’s College. Ellen calls Joan Childs, the board’s secretary, “the heart of Team Heroes.” Joan’s son, Joey Governale, the board vice president and coach, is also a tireless advocate for these children.
Forming a not-for-profit can be a challenging and expensive undertaking, but that didn’t deter Ellen.
Hearing a parent exclaim, “I wish I had known about this last year!,” makes all of Ellen’s sacrifices worth the effort. For Ellen, who’s single and doesn’t have a child of her own, seeing her program grow as more parents learn about Team Heroes is exhilarating. “Each year we’ve doubled in size,” Ellen says proudly. Parents also benefit from the program by making new connections and sharing their challenges and victories with one another.
Ellen is now studying for her Board Certified Behavior Analyst certification, which is the highest certification in the ABA program. When finished, she has plans to form a Team Heroes winter program. For now, Ellen is anxiously awaiting the start of the spring 2012 season.
“I miss it,” she says. “I love waking up on Saturdays!”
Team Heroes is currently seeking volunteers to assist them when the season starts. They’re especially looking for college students studying to be special needs teachers.
Great teachers have the power to change lives and Ellen’s dedication to children in the autistic community is uniquely noteworthy. By forming a non-profit to benefit this growing population, she has pledged her allegiance to Long Island children. Ellen’s reward is to witness the success stories she helped create by giving these families hope that for their children the game is not over—it’s game on!
To contact Ellen, email EllenViola@hotmail.com or go to teamheroessports.webs.com. Ellen also recently published her third children’s book in her “I Love to Pretend!” series, which are social stories for children with autism. For more information, go to www.ILovetoPretend.com.