Angus primary pupils are once again benefitting from a local sports charity’s award-winning autism-friendly rugby sessions thanks to Zoom and kit bought with Scottish Government grant funding.

Strathmore Community Rugby Trust began its free twice-weekly sessions for Angus Primary 1-7 pupils in 2019. They’re designed to create a positive learning environment for children with or undergoing diagnosis for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their siblings to have fun while developing confidence and social skills as well as general physical literacy and sporting skills. They also provide respite and social contact for parents and carers.

The sessions, which won the award for Pioneering Project at last year’s Scottish Charity Awards, involve activities including a ‘Rugby Ready’ warm-up – fun tag/touch-based rugby games plus sensory activities including proprioceptive input – to create sensations from joints, muscles and connective tissues that underlie body awareness – obtained by lifting, pushing and pulling heavy objects, including your own weight.

Funding

When Scotland was first put into lockdown last year the sessions had to stop. However, soon after, trust Community Project Co-ordinator Maggie Lawrie spotted that Scottish Government funding to help communities recover was being made available via Foundation Scotland’s Response Recovery Resilience Fund. She applied for money to buy kit which would enable the sessions to resume remotely.

Thanks to a grant of £1,944 from the fund, the trust was able to buy the children who normally take part in the sessions a full-size and mini rugby ball, tennis ball, hurdles, cones, a ball pump and a box as well as a Trust-branded water bottle and T-shirt – to help them to feel part of a team.

Then, just as the trust planned to start delivering the sessions via Zoom at the end of July, a change in social distancing guidelines for Under-12s enabled it to instead resume the face-to-face sessions. However, because the trust was aware tighter Covid restrictions were likely to return later in the year, it sent the remote sessions kit out to the children’s families.

Zoom sessions

Once we went back into Lockdown after Christmas, the plan to deliver the sessions remotely was dusted off and, since January 15, Community Project Leader James Kiely and the coaches who normally lead each group at the sessions have been leading it remotely via Zoom calls, with the children split into four groups to limit the numbers and not overwhelm them.

Although they can’t fully replicate the usual sessions because, for example, they couldn’t send out tackle bags, the trust staff are doing their best to challenge the children in different ways while they’re at home through foundational movements, with two or three activities per session – such as animal walks, ball skills and balance challenges. Breakout rooms are used to give one-to-one coaching where necessary.

Benefits

The benefits for the children include maintaining some of their normal routine, providing the sensory input they need and developing their social skills. Parents have reported that the branded T-shirts and bottles have, as hoped, helped them feel part of a team. Being at home with their parents while taking part also helps them feel comfortable.

“The overriding thing, though, is the genuine joy and excitement each week from the kids to be able to take part in rugby again, see their friends and to chat with the coaches, says Maggie Lawrie. “It’s amazing seeing how well they are responding to the sessions.”

Neill Birse, whose eight-year-old daughter Saskia takes part from their Carnoustie home, says: “I think the trust’s autism-friendly rugby is outstanding! Saskia gets a lot out of the sessions as it keeps her engaged and maintains the routine that so many autistic children need. Sunday morning is rugby and Saskia is always up and ready, waiting to log into her session.

“A lot of kids’ clubs have stopped during lockdown, but this club keeps going. Thank you guys!”

James Kiely added: “The sessions have been great for the kids who’ve been able to join in as they give them a chance to interact safely with their coaches and the other children. Saskia in particular has really surprised us with how well she has been doing with the online sessions. While in person she would occasionally drift in and out of sessions, online she’s been able to fully engage with the coaches and even managed to show the other kids on the call some of her favourite animal walks!”

The trust plans to continue the Zoom sessions until Scotland’s path out of Lockdown allows the face-to-face ones to return.

Appeal for donations

Because its normal fundraising activities have been severely limited by Covid restrictions, the trust is asking local people and organisations to provide monthly donations to support its full range of community wellbeing work, which includes rugby and life skills for secondary pupils, walking rugby for the less mobile and unified rugby to include people with disabilities. Details of how to donate can be found on the trust website at https://www.strathmoretrust.co.uk/donate/

The trust was founded in 2017 to increase public participation in sport, particularly rugby union and rugby league, in the Forfar, Kirriemuir and Brechin areas to benefit community health and wellbeing as well as develop young people into healthy, positive members of the community through the positive ethos and values of rugby.

It’s based at Strathmore Rugby Club in Forfar and works in partnership with Strathmore RFC, Brechin RFC, sportscotland, Scottish Rugby and Scotland Rugby League. Maggie Lawrie’s role is supported by funding from the Forfar Common Good Fund, sportscotland and The Robertson Trust.

The trust’s Royal Patron is HRH The Earl of Forfar.

To find out more, go to the trust’s website at https://www.strathmoretrust.co.uk