Jan. 18, 2024

Former Special Olympics coach ramps up her game in physical literacy for neurodiverse people

Laura St. John teaches revamped UCalgary course to equip students in creating inclusive environments
Laura St.John
Laura St. John Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Dr. Laura St. John first became interested in working with neurodiverse people after taking a high school physical education course in which she and her classmates worked one-on-one with a student who had neurodevelopmental disabilities.

“These were students who typically are left out of physical education,” says St. John, PhD. “They’re not included in the classes with students without disabilities because the belief was that they can’t be included in these programs (and that) they won’t be successful in them.

“But what we were seeing is that, by offering them this peer support, they got a lot out of the program. They enjoyed themselves.”

St. John, one of the Faculty of Kinesiology’s newest assistant professors, now hopes to make a big impact on how students approach working with neurodiverse populations at University of Calgary.

Her position in adapted physical activity for neurodiverse youth will consist of conducting research focusing on developing, implementing and evaluating physical literacy interventions for neurodiverse populations for all, but specifically for woman and girls, who are often underrepresented in research. She will also be teaching an updated course on the subject.

St. John has her bachelor’s degree from Wilfrid Laurier University, her master’s from the University of Victoria and her PhD from the University of Toronto, all in kinesiology and exercise science. She has also coached for Special Olympics from 2009 to 2015 and was a program co-ordinator for the Special Olympics Active Start program from 2015 to 2017. 

St. John says people with neurodevelopmental conditions, which include autism, ADHD and intellectual disabilities, may not be physically active, which can lead to social isolation and poor physical and mental health later in life. She says there is a breakdown in the way we present physical activity to neurodiverse people that needs to be altered to better include them.

This is why St. John felt so strongly about wanting to join the UCalgary team, because of her connection to the job posting that promised researching physical activity in neurodiverse women and girls, which had been the centre of her prior work. The job was offered in collaboration with the Azrieli Accelerator, which helps to improve research and the lives of people with developmental and neurodevelopmental conditions.

At UCalgary, St. John is teaching Adaptive Physical Activity (KNES 367), an existing course that, for the first time, will focus exclusively on neurodevelopmental disabilities. The course aims to teach students how to work with neurodiverse people in physical activity settings. She hopes the course can prepare students for future careers in which they work with neurodiverse people, while helping them learn how to create more-inclusive environments, especially as not all neurodiversity-related conditions are visible.

“There's this knowledge of, hey, if I'm going to go out in the field and work with clients or be a phys-ed teacher or be a physical trainer or be a physiotherapist or a doctor or a chiropractor or whatever people want to do, there's a very good chance that I'm going to work with someone with a neurodevelopmental condition,” says St. John. “I think we're doing a huge disservice if we don’t prepare students for how to approach those situations.” 

Adaptive Physical Activity is offered once a year in the winter semester.

The Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary is the No. 1 sport-science school in North America, and No. 11 globally.

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