Autism Awareness Day: Celebrating Difference at Brendan Sailing

In honor of World Autism Awareness Day, US Sailing sat down with Jane Millman, Brendan Sailing’s new Executive Director, to talk about Brendan Sailing’s mission and how sailing can improve the lives of youth with learning differences. US Sailing discussed Jane’s personal journey, why she’s excited about the position, and what she loves about the Brendan Approach. Brendan Sailing is unique in that they focus exclusively on youth with learning differences and those on the autism spectrum, and they are currently accepting applications for Summer Camp 2024 – click here to find out more! For more information about Brendan Sailing’s history and impact, check out their “The Gift” video here.

Before taking the position at Brendan Sailing, Jane served as Director of Basic Sail Training at the Naval Academy. This work, as well as her time spent at various yacht clubs, allows her to bring an experienced perspective to Brendan Sailing. Of her time at the Naval Academy, she said, “It’s been a wonderful job, and it was absolutely the right job for the right time of my life. But I’ve really missed working with the kids and seeing the impact sailing has on an individual. With Brendan Sailing, it’s a smaller nonprofit where I’m able to have a small team of instructors, and then build those relationships with all the students again. I’m really looking forward to having that connection with the families and the students, to see their progress through the summer and have them come back year after year.” And the students do come back – so frequently and with such success, in fact, that Brendan Sailing has a contingent of alumni who now work as instructors.

Brendan Sailing is an organization that aims to “build pathways for self-confidence and personal growth in children with learning differences through individually tailored experiential instruction in sailing.”  Their groundbreaking curriculum, entitled the “Brendan Approach,” is more a curriculum for instructors than students and allows instructors to “meet the students where they are with the different types of learning differences that they have.” “I’ve known about Brendan Sailing for a very long time,” Jane told US Sailing, “and I’m so excited to be a part of the organization and help expand its reach and awareness within the community, both here and nationally.”

One thing that sets the Brendan Approach apart is its emphasis on individual instruction. “We have a three-to-one student to instructor ratio, so it’s really small groups,” Jane said. “Each child is given the attention that they need, and every student is able to get that individualized attention so that they can learn the skills best. I think it’s great that Brendan Sailing has the opportunity to stay small and focus on kids with learning differences, knowing that each child learns differently, and we’re able to tailor that learning experience to each child.”

Jane’s belief in the power of sailing, as well as the Brendan Approach, is a large part of what motivated her to become Executive Director: “I’ve seen the power that sailing can have on an individual over the years of teaching. It’s those moments, those small wins, when you can see the individuals’ self-confidence and their entire personality change – when they learn a skill, they master that tack, they sail upwind for the first time, or even just ride along in a sailboat for the first time! Having that safe experience and exposure to sailing can be so transformative in individuals’ lives, and so I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of Brendan Sailing, which is small, experiential instruction.”

Jane’s work with youth with learning differences has already changed the way she thinks about sailing, and she’s excited to take these lessons and implement them at Brendan Sailing. “Youth with learning differences sometimes just need more time to learn. They need skills broken down in a different way, in a place that meets them where they are. Having run programs for fifteen years, I’ve seen children involved in the programs that have learning differences, and I have unfortunately not been able to offer them individualized attention. So, I’m excited to really have a focused curriculum that coaches instructors on how to really teach to each student’s needs.”

During our conversation, Jane emphasized that the Brendan Approach focuses on tactile instruction: “A lot of our students are dyslexic, or have dysgraphia or dyscalculia.  Numbers and words can be difficult for them. By using model boats or hands-on techniques, it really helps them learn the information, and retain it better as well.” Each instructor is trained in the Brendan Approach before the start of the program, and the program boasts a great mix of returning and new instructors.

Brendan Sailing doesn’t have a progressive curriculum, but the kids still come back year after year, because they love the program and its instructional style. Rather than a beginner-middle-advanced progression, the small student-to-instructor ratio allows real tailoring of each lesson to each child, and often students are placed in small groups with other returners to learn more advanced skills. The program also has both day and overnight camps, which, in Jane’s words, “allow campers the opportunity to have that sleep-away camp experience that any child should have the opportunity to do someday.” The students sleep in dorms and get a little taste of college, while still retaining the structure and leisure time intrinsic to any summer camp experience.

US Sailing asked Jane how the sailing community can continue to work towards creating a more accommodating environment for sailors with learning differences, and she had this to say: “I think it’s super important, because no sport or activity should be restricted to anybody. I think there should be equal access to sport, whether it be sailing, tennis, hockey… With our program, our founder Jim Muldoon, made it a founding principle that we never turn away an individual from the program due to financial need. We offer a lot of scholarships, both full and partial, to the program, which I wholeheartedly believe is one of the best features of Brendan Sailing. We never turn away a student based on financial need. We get kids from all different backgrounds, which I think really helps the group as a whole develop and become more well-rounded.  I think if we’re with the same people every single day, then we’re not exposed to different cultures and different ways of how people learn and grow. Being able to include everybody and ensure everybody is given the same opportunity to learn is what really benefits the program and the sport of sailing. Every student learns differently, but how the kids translate that information back to us is really cool, because they also teach us. When a student says, ‘Hey, I wasn’t able to understand this concept that way,’ they can teach us how to teach them better, too.” Brendan Sailing prides itself on creating an open, communicative environment in which students feel comfortable advocating for how they learn best. Their unique, individualized style of instruction allows both students and coaches to learn from each other.