Many children with autism find it difficult to join in mainstream sports – but a unique rugby charity in Tayside is changing all that.
Strathmore Community Rugby Trust’s autism-friendly rugby has been such a hit, visitors from all over the east coast are now flocking to Forfar.
Coordinator Maggie Lawrie said the trust – which is the only rugby association in Scotland catering for children for autism – had opened up new opportunities for children and their families.
Autism-friendly rugby was established 18 months ago, aimed at primary school children with autism, or undergoing autism diagnosis.
Maggie explained: “It was started when one of the coaches had a son diagnosed with autism and realised there was very little out there. We thought rugby could offer quite a lot for his child.
“The aim is to get them more physically active while still meeting some of their needs.
“Some of them have sensory processing difficulties so they don’t make friends easily and it also gives a place for parents to meet each other and get support from each others.
“For the first 15 minutes they get to go and play with the tackle bags and the balls and run off a bit of steam because they are very excited.
“This also allows the children with sensory processing difficulties to receive the sensory input they need.
She added: “With sensory processing difficulties it is like having an empty bucket at the start of the day, and as the day goes on it gets fuller and fuller. Eventually it overflows and the child is at risk of having a meltdown unless they get a chance to empty some of that water from the bucket. Our sessions allow them to do this.
“Then we play parachute games with rugby balls and the last part of the session is running games.
“For example we play stuck in the mud, where someone can move until someone crawls through their legs.
“For an autistic child that is a lot for them to process, having someone touch them is a big thing for them and then they have to learn to work with each other to allow people to get back into the game, which is huge for them.”
The sessions run on a Friday and a Sunday and the coaches have undergone specialist training.
Siblings who do not have autism have a chance to join in and play as well.
Maggie continued: “The feedback from parents is these kids don’t cope well with mainstream programmes.
“These kids find it very difficult to join in with sessions and often just float around on the edge. Some of them are non-verbal and therefore find it difficult to communicate their needs with untrained coaches.
“There is very little else around in the area that is autism-friendly, and we also allow siblings to join in even if they are not autistic.
“One person said to me that is huge for their daughter, because whenever they have tried to take their autistic son to mainstream sports with her he can’t cope, he is not able to join in, and the coaches can’t figure out a solution.
“Their daughter then has to stop the session too because her brother can’t understand they she is allowed to keep going and he is not.
“It’s a bit of respite for the daughter as well because everywhere she goes she is watching out for her brother and having to explain to the other children why he does what he does, but here she doesn’t have to, she can just relax and have fun.
Strathmore Community Rugby Trust – which has been nominated for both a Scottish Charity Award and a People’s Choice Award – had to stop during lockdown.
But the autism-friendly rugby sessions were was back up and running at the beginning of August, as under 12s were allowed to meet up without social distancing.
Maggie added: “Returning after lockdown has made a huge difference to the parents.
“We gave them the choice of starting before the schools went back or a few weeks after, and every single parents said they wanted to go back sooner.
“They were desperate for the sessions to come back, they wanted the kids to get back outside and running around, and they wanted something familiar they enjoy.”