Kids on Autism Spectrum Enjoy Bowling League

By Briana Vannozzi

For 6-year-old Kate Portella and most of her bowling pals, this is the first time they’re part of a team.

The Binder Autism Center from St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital put the league together after realizing the kids, all diagnosed on the spectrum, needed a little fun in their behavior therapy.

“It’s providing services at a young age to help them build skills like turn taking, waiting, being part of a team, participating, having them come to a different location instead of just their house or school to play a game,” said Binder Autism Center Clinical Coordinator Kathleen Moran.

“After the first week we set goals for each child for the 10-week bowling league, and then week to week we will meet and debrief and talk about how they work on their goals,” said St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital Manager Pamela Martorana.

The league started in the spring for teenagers with ASD. The success opened it up for this group of 20 spunky 4- to 9-year-olds. They don’t see it as a life skills lesson, just a night out with friends who understand them best.

Is Nicole Guerra having fun bowling? “Yeah!” she said.

What does she like about it? “It’s, uh, I love it!” she said.

“They try to make new friendships with other kids, which is not typical for them, but it’s nice to see they can share anything,” said mother Nancy Latorre.

Is this about intervention as well as recreation for these kids?

“Yes. Yes it is. It’s fun for the kids, which is probably the foremost thing that we want out of it. And it’s an opportunity to meet other children, but the intervention is improving their social skills,” said Dr. Joe Holahan.

Dr. Holahan, director for the center, says as with any developmental disorder, early intervention produces the greatest outcome. It forces the children to verbalize and play together rather than in isolation as is often found with autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Holahan and the staff, as well as volunteers who run the group, see big differences in the kids after just a few short weeks.

“They’re enjoying the interaction with the other kids more, they’re more relaxed. I think we’ve seen how quickly they can adjust to the rules, the waiting, the taking their turn,” he said.

What does Juliett Sandoval like best?

“I like bowling!” she said.

“Every week they know when Thursday is coming. So they know on Thursdays they have bowling and they look forward to coming and putting on their T-shirt and coming here and joining their friends,” said mother Rahana Hussain.

And the parents get a support network, too. For many it offers a respite and a feeling of independence.

“Today I was able to actually step out for like 15 minutes, you know comfortably, and I came right back, but still. I can trust the people here, I can trust the group and team with my children because they are wanderers, they will wander away and knowing there is someone who will take care of them just as I would,” Hussain said.

The hope is even if the bowling tips don’t last, the friendships and the social skills will.