Wowee zowee, look at Kassiane rocking some radical gymnastics up there. I'd give her a 10, but I can't quite see the percentage of extension on the back foot with the blur and all. Can I get a replay...?
Kassiane Sibley is a vintage 1982 autistic woman who lives in the Pacific Northwest. She has spoken at conferences across the western hemisphere and is active in Autistic and neurodiversity advocacy. Kassiane "writes when she feels like it" at Radical Neurodivergence, has contributed to Ask And Tell, and has written numerous articles, as well as participated in several interviews. In addition to gymnastics and advocacy, she enjoys swing dancing, other dancing styles, tabletop role playing games, and neuropharmacology.
Kassiane: My mom put me in a tumbling class when I was about 5, but I wasn't immediately successful so she yanked me out. I continued to teach myself cartwheels, walkovers, and handsprings in the yard and started classes again several years later. I consider myself to have been a gymnast for about 20 years now.
E: Did gymnastics come easily to you? If not, please explain how you accommodated or overcame any struggles.
Kassiane: Hahaha, NO. Oh my gosh, no. I needed very patient coaches who were willing to work around skills, present them in different ways, trick my brain into not over-thinking things so my body could do what it knew. I competed in several events (occasionally in earplugs), and learned skills in a kind of screwed up order. Also, I was at very different levels for different events. But hard work, that I could do, and I did.
E: What are your favorite and least favorite gymnastics events?
Kassiane: I have done both trampoline and tumbling--it is what it sounds like--and artistic gymnastics, which is what you see in the Olympics. My favorite in T&T (Tumbling & Trampoline) was tumbling, followed closely by double mini, which involves a smaller trampoline. I'm atrocious, simply AWFUL, at trampoline. I like to bounce but never could put all the skills together for an impressive routine. In artistic, I loved floor, and liked training beam, but had a tough time competing it. My bars were simply tragic and frustrating.
As a coach, I love teaching tumbling to my T&Ters, and I actually really like teaching bars. I've got a very technical brain that really groks nuance and the biomechanics, so teaching bars is nowhere near as hard as DOING bars!
E: Tell us about a gymnastics accomplishment that makes you proud to this day.
Kassiane: When I was 19 or so, I won the Amanda Howe Memorial Sunshine & Sportsmanship award. It's an award to recognize athletes who work hard, have a good attitude, and are good role models, even if they aren't at the very top of their sport. That means way more to me than being recognized for having the best physical abilities, because flips are temporary but being worth looking up to is forever.
E: What are your current goals as a gymnast? Do you feel there is an age limit to how long a gymnast can train and enjoy gymnastics, even if they are no longer competing?
Kassiane: As you know, I haven't competed in years and it's unlikely that I will again. I'm thinking about doing a T&T meet for fun at a level much lower than I used to do, but that's just an idle daydream right now. I mostly want to stay flexible and still be able to do a back tuck and an aerial cartwheel in a few years. I also hope to use the skills and body awareness to learn some of the throws in swing dancing.
I don't believe in too old. If you are enjoying it, you are exactly the right age. Elite is not the be all and end all of gymnastics, and the attitude that it is is what leads to people thinking they're too old. But if someone enjoys it, they can learn skills and get strong at all ages.
E: You're a gymnastics coach and instructor, and part of your job involves working with autistic children. How do you approach instructing kids on the spectrum? Are there any common accommodations?
Kassiane: I teach all my students as individuals. That helps more than one would think. We do a lot of reinforcing what a position means and that it always means that (like a tuck is in a ball with your knees to your belly button) no matter what you are doing-jumping, flipping, or just sitting. Then the position is automatic, even if the rest of the skill isn't. I do a lot of demonstration for the visual learners, and I break down things really far for the kids who need it. Like, we have had kids who do not know how to jump off 2 feet, and we spent about 45 minutes just practicing that once.
I also try to make sure they always know what's going to happen (like, "We are going to stretch, go to tumbletrak, then trampoline, and then get strong!) so that there isn't as much anxiety over the future. I'm willing to make a visual schedule but no one has needed that yet. And I try to make sure they know what I liked about skills, not just what needs work. Or if a kid just needs to be mad at me, whatever, I can deal with that. Getting in a power struggle over it is silly.
E: Some people think that autistic people are too clumsy or uncoordinated to ever master a sport like gymnastics. What is your response?
Kassiane: A no handed cartwheel *grin*. This comes back to elite not being the be all and end all. This whole idea of Don't Do Something If You Can't Be The Best is really detrimental. An autistic person may not ever get good enough to go to the Olympics, but you know what? Neither do most gymnasts. And that's ok. The physical and mental benefits come to everyone, not just the best of the best of the best. There's so much about gymnastics that is SO GOOD for us, whether we can do a somersault or a double back.
E: Is there anything I haven't asked that you would like to share?
Kassiane: I love talking about the benefits of gymnastics. There's the physical, like strength, flexibility (fun fact: most gymnasts need to WORK for splits), ease of movement, and posture. There's the character traits, like confidence, perseverance, setting and achieving goals, sportsmanship, being part of a team...confidence in particular is systemically destroyed in a lot of autistic people. And there's the whole "I can do something that less than 1% of the world can do" peer-recognized skill, and the proprioceptive and vestibular input are unmatched. If you can walk on your hands, you can get good pressure to your upper extremities wherever you go.
Oh, and being able to learn new sports and movement patterns faster than all other athletes, that's pretty rad too...
Clay Marzo's official website (surfer who happens to be on the spectrum)
Jason McElwain (high school basketball)