The Autism Society Philippines (ASP) is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of persons with autism spectrum disorder. The ASP has been in the forefront of providing services and training to families living with autism.

26 February 2014

Coaching a Special Olympian

This article appeared on 24 February 2014 in the print and on-line versions of Manila Bulletin's "Angels Talk", edited by Dang U. Koe, ASP Chair Emeritus.

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with special needs, providing year-round training and competitions to more than 4.2 million special athletes in 170 countries. It gives continuing opportunities to these truly special people to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and share gifts, skills and friendships with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and their communities.

Our Angel Talker this week Beth Jimenez and her family are based in Texas, USA. Her son John Joseph was diagnosed with autism at age three and this turned her into an active advocate for children with special needs. She now serves as volunteer coach for the Special Olympics of Fort Bend.

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My family and I moved to Houston, Texas in 2001. In our effort to look for extracurricular activities for our autistic son, JJ, we discovered that the local school district provided activities for children with special needs under the umbrella of Special Olympics. JJ really enjoyed the competition and sportsmanship, so after he graduated high school and was no longer eligible to compete through the school district, we looked for opportunities that will allow him to continue to compete. We found the ARC of Fort Bend County, a non-profit organization that offers Special Olympics training for adults with special needs – basketball, aquatics, softball, bocce, golf, track and field, volleyball and bowling. We immediately enrolled my son, and he started to participate in almost all of the sports, except for track and field. His favorite, and the one he excelled in the most, was swimming.

John Joseph Jimenez is a person with autism who has won multiple medals for swimming in the Special Olympics.


It hasn’t always been so easy for JJ to swim since he was scared of open waters. It did not stop us, however, from taking him to the beach or riding boats so that he would feel more comfortable with the concept. He would watch his younger sister take swimming lessons, and we could see from the look in his eyes that he was eager to do the same. One day, his teacher took him to the swimming pool and found out that JJ had, amazingly, learned how to swim just from watching his sister. Soon enough, his fear of water turned into love.

Being an expatriate family, moving frequently from country to country, we sometimes found it difficult to find good teachers for JJ. Thankfully, we found a good swimming instructor for him while we were in Caracas, Venezuela. Although he didn’t speak English, he was very adept at training JJ by physically showing him the strokes. The rest, as they say, is history. Now, JJ has won many gold medals in Special Olympics.

Our entire family has become involved with Special Olympics. Both my husband and I are certified coaches, and my daughter volunteered when she was in high school and university. She now shows her support by sponsoring some of the events through her company and by donating team shirts to the athletes. While some of our volunteers and coaches have family members with special needs who are directly involved with the sports, others do not have and just want to donate their time and effort to the program because they fell in love with the athletes. Such is one of our head coaches who said that even when she had a bad day in the office, she would always look forward to the practices to see the smiling faces of her athletes. She said she loves that they are so genuine and truly happy to be there, with no pretensions whatsoever.

Volunteers serve as the foundation for Special Olympics. They act as coaches, officials, committee members, competition assistants, speech coaches, and they fill many more roles to ensure the program’s success. To guarantee proper preparation and training, volunteers must complete a certification program prior to becoming a Special Olympics coach, and they must attend training school each season. But the basic requirements for becoming a Special Olympics coach are very simple: a big heart and love for fun.

Once the volunteers are trained, the focus turns to the competitive aspect of Special Olympics. The athletes train intensely under the volunteer coaches for eight weeks prior to each sporting competition. The competition starts with the Area Games and whoever participates earns their ticket to the State Games. This is a very exciting time for the athletes because they get to travel, stay in hotels and eat in restaurants – privileges some of them are not able to experience on their own.

During the actual Special Olympics, volunteers are so important. Special Olympics requires a ratio of one chaperone per four athletes. Many of our athletes require medication so one person is dedicated to make sure that all medications are administered correctly. Volunteers need to wake up as early as 5 a.m. to make sure their athletes have breakfast and receive their medications before heading to the competition site. They also serve as psychologists and counselors to the athletes because, unfortunately, not everyone can win first place. It is in those moments that they try to instill the lesson from the Special Olympics Oath that each athlete utters before the start of every competition: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

In the end, Special Olympics owes its success to these individuals who volunteer their time and effort. They make such a difference in the lives of each and every one of the Special Olympics athletes.

JJ is now 31 years old, he has been competing for many years and has benefited greatly from Special Olympics. It is quite an endeavor to get him and the rest of the athletes ready for competition, and then another undertaking to bring everyone to the competition. Countless hours have been dedicated to the coaches’ trainings, the coaches’ meetings, the athletes’ practices and the competitions, but it is something that we do gladly and wholeheartedly. JJ has faced many obstacles in life, and we have no doubt that there will be many more. But there is nothing more touching, or satisfying than the priceless look on his face when he’s awarded a gold medal and he exclaims, “I’M A WINNER!”

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ASP is starting a series of webcasts from the Special Learning ABA Training Program. March 1 session features Effective Methods to Teach Functional Social Skills by board-certified behavior analysts and highly-trained behavior therapists Tabitha Kirby and Julie Roumeliote. For details, follow us on Facebook or visit http://autismsocietyphilippines.org.

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