Autism Hits The Slopes

Adaptive skiing programs provide ASD kids and families with invaluable health benefits and lifelong memories…

I love to ski. I love mountains and I love snow. Skiing gives me a sense of freedom that is unmatched in any other activity I do. It calms and exhilarates me at the same time and I would truly rather be skiing than doing anything else.

I caught the “ski bug” when I was 16 and cemented it during my first holiday to Austria. When I was offered a job after grad school in Las Vegas, within sniffing distance of Utah, I jumped at the chance. It was there that I met my husband.

Mountain memories

A few years later we moved—an occupational hazard of marrying into the military. Our time living away from mountains was even a factor in the timing of us starting our family. Since there isn’t any skiing in Texas, it didn’t matter if I was pregnant there and we would use our time to care for our baby boy, Tom. When Tom was two, he was diagnosed with autism. We left Texas a month later for 11 months in Alabama, another non-skiing location, so we threw ourselves into Tom’s therapeutic and biomedical interventions. He thrived. His bowel problems subsided and his speech started developing.

In early 2010 we discovered our next duty location—Colorado Springs, CO. I have to admit, my heart jumped. I was so excited at the prospect of moving where we would once again be able to drive to the mountains to ski. The several months of waiting to relocate were torture. When we moved, our son was three; surely that wasn’t too early to put him on skis?

For a child with autism, would skiing be an option at all? Were we going to Colorado just to be frustrated that our son couldn’t join in an activity that we loved so much and desperately wanted to enjoy as a family? Some people visualize playing baseball or soccer with their child, or watching them at dance recitals. For me, it was the image of my little guy bombing down a black run next to me, with the exhilarated look on his face that I understood so well.

Gearing up

In preparation for ski season, we bought Tom a jacket, ski pants and a helmet, all on clearance, and rented him some skis for the season. We were afraid to invest either too much aspiration or money, just in case things didn’t go as we hoped. He tried everything on, then walked around the house in his boots and skis to get used to the feel of the gear and clothing.

We did our research on ski school programs and were thrilled to discover that our closest ski resort, Breckenridge, also had an adaptive program. When most people think of adaptive programs, they think about physical disabilities, rather than developmental ones. Like several programs nationwide (see sidebar), the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) is able to accommodate children and adults with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities too.

Meeting the challenge

We headed to our son’s first ski lesson with trepidation— what if he didn’t like it or became so frustrated with any problems that he had a meltdown? What if a bad experience put him off forever?

We needn’t have worried: he loved it. BOEC sends out an instructor and a volunteer helper for each child; the staff works hard to make things fun for their students. They played in the snow and rode the “magic carpet” to get to the top of the gentle, roped-off beginner area. We were so proud when we saw him come down that slope the first time. We discovered our son actually has good balance, which was a huge surprise. We’d spent the previous 18 months so focused on his deficits—what he couldn’t do and where he was delayed—that we’d forgotten to look at what he could do.

The first ski season we just concentrated on him having fun on the hill. He quickly got bored with the little hill and we were shocked one day to see him racing down the main hill between his two instructors holding onto a pole. The chairlift had become a big motivator for him—he just loved to ride on it—and on the way down, his instructors worked on him skiing using muscle memory. Even with typical children, the ability to snow plough isn’t there until around the age of four or so.

Upping the ante

After our successful first ski season, we took the plunge and picked up some used skis for him, since it cost around the same as renting. We are lucky that a store in our city has a “trade-in” program, so once Tom is finished with these skis, he can trade them in for a longer set with only a minimal cost outlay.

Our second season brought new resorts into the mix. One benefit of being a military family stationed in Colorado is that we have access to a discounted lift pass for some resorts, one of which is Keystone. Luckily, BOEC also has an operation at Keystone, so we decided to give them a try as well. We couldn’t believe that after our first day there, Tom had learned to stop while skiing downhill—a major accomplishment for any novice skier.

The volunteer with him that day was an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) tutor that used to work at Tom’s old therapy office, as well as being an adaptive soccer coach, so her knowledge of behavior and motivation worked really well. His instructor was also wonderful and really understood some of the fine motor problems that could affect skiing.

Reaping the rewards

Not only does skiing offer families the chance to experience unparalleled fun, it has therapeutic benefits to individuals with autism. “Skiing is a very organizing, challenging, and fun activity that gives terrific multisensory input coupled with aerobic exercise,” according to author, Autism File “Sensory Smarts” contributor, and occupational therapist Lindsey Biel. “Kids get great vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile feedback from navigating through snow that builds balance, motor sequencing skills, muscle power and body awareness. It’s one of the most motivating activities out there.”

One of the many rewards to our family became evident at Keystone on our last day of the season: Tom could now turn and stop independently! I got to ski with my little boy that sunny day and it was nothing short of incredible. We view our son skiing with us as a victory because autism sometimes prevents families from spending time together in fun activities. We’re looking forward to next season with the hope that Tom will continue to build on his skills and confidence amongst the beauty of the Colorado mountains. The dream of my little guy and I racing down a black slope together is still alive in my head—and to me that’s priceless.

Tips for a Successful ASD Skiing Experience

  • Communicate with ski staff. Keep in mind that not all adaptive programs are autism-specific, but even those that aren’t may still be viable options. Tell your ski program’s staff about your child and give them ideas on how to best work with him. Let them know his challenges, strengths, and what motivates him.
  • Relax. The aim of the first lesson or ski experience is for the child to have FUN and enjoy their time in the snow. Don’t pressure them.
  • Explore the options. Many programs offer both skiing and snowboarding options. Since we are a skiing family, that’s the route we chose, but if your child would prefer to snowboard, give that a try too!
  • Bargain shop. Borrow ski clothing rather than buy it if you don’t live in a climate where you would need snow gear. Wait to buy until you know your child enjoys snow sports. There are a ton of options for buying used cold weather gear too, which tend to be grown out of before showing wear.
  • Get package deals. Most ski programs include rental equipment in the lesson price. Check with them before renting gear.
  • Use stickers. For every day of skiing, we had our son put a new sticker on his helmet. He thought this was really cool and tied in well with the token economy concepts he had already mastered through ABA and preschool. It added to his sense of accomplishment.
  • Test the ski wear in advance. For children with sensory difficulties, have them practice wearing their snow clothes before the lesson. Have them get used to wearing extra layers.
  • Use a helmet. Most programs won’t allow children to ski without one. Always use a proper snow sports helmet rather than a cycling or skating one.
  • Dress in layers. It’s easy to go from being cold to sweltering when skiing. Have layers kids can remove if they get too warm.
  • Don’t forget sunscreen. The snow reflects the sun which can accelerate sunburn.
  • Explain the process. Clearly explain to a child what they will be doing. Use pictures and internet videos to help them visualize.
  • Plan for meals. If your child is on a special diet, remember that ski resorts seldom have allergy-friendly food options. Pack a lunch to include some of your child’s favorite foods to add to the positive experience. Also pack snacks and plenty of fluids—skiing is hard work!
  • Ask about scholarships. Since most adaptive ski programs are non-profit, they often have scholarships available so that cost is not a barrier to participation.


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