Angus children enjoyed the first autism-friendly rugby session in Scotland – held by Strathmore RFC Community Trust. Pic: Shona Campbell

An Angus sports charity has introduced autism-friendly rugby sessions for primary school pupils to Scotland to help them and their parents.

The Strathmore Rugby Club Community Trust, based in Forfar, is holding the new free weekly sessions for Angus Primary 1-7 pupils each Friday.

They 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.

Positive learning environment

The sessions are 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 – who can socialise and enjoy refreshments on-site as well as watch with the knowledge their child is in a safe environment.

The weekly training, planned to be held on Fridays 5-6pm plus Sundays 2-3pm based on demand, includes a range of features to take into account the specialised needs of children with ASD.

The Community Project Assistants leading the sessions, supported by the trust’s Community Project Co-ordinator Josh Gabriel-Clarke, as well as club coaches and staff, received training in autism-friendly rugby, coaching children with autism, PABSS – understanding challenging behaviour training, basic Makaton, general disability awareness and how to accommodate each child’s needs as far as possible. They also minimise voice projection where possible – mainly using visual aids instead.

Other steps taken to make the sessions autism-friendly, include:

  • ‘Story boxes’ sent to parents beforehand. They contain a ‘social story’ explaining what happens at the rugby sessions and a number of tactile objects the children can expect to encounter at the sessions (e.g. rugby ball, bib, cone, rugby boots, shirt and shorts). Their aim is to reduce the children’s anticipatory anxieties, as fear of the unknown is common in people with ASD. For those with Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD), it gives them the opportunity to get used to the feel of objects they’ll encounter which might cause distress if they are hyper or hypo-sensitive to sensory overload.
  • Picture Exchange Communication (PEC) cards – to aid communication with the children. PEC cards are given to the families beforehand and provide the children with a visual reminder of what to expect when they come. Visual stories are also used to paint a picture of what they can expect throughout the session.
  • Sensory tents – at the side of the field. These are a supervised area where children can have time to themselves to calm down before rejoining the game if things get too much for them. They include sensory objects and visuals which have a calming affect for children with ASD.
  • SPD equipment – Sunglasses, ear defenders, baseball caps – which help those with SPD self-regulate but stay engaged with the session.
  • Emergency use only of whistles by coaches to minimise sensory overload.
  • Limited group sizes of up 10-12 and multiple coaches (2-3 per group) helps to reduce sensory overload and enable the children to interact with the majority of the group and the coach on a much better level than getting lost in a larger group of children, which would also make it harder for coaches to accommodate individual needs.
  • Training/playing groups spread out across the playing area – to reduce sensory overload.

Josh Gabriel-Clarke has a personal reason for suggesting the sessions to add to the secondary pupils Rugby Academy, walking rugby and unified rugby (for disabled adults) initiatives the trust has created in its first two years.

“My son Archie, who is six, was diagnosed with autism and Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD) aged three. As a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and being engaged with the additional needs community, I recognised there’s a demand but a distinct lack of activities in the area for children with additional needs such as ASD and SPD.

“We hope these sessions will give children with ASD a positive learning environment to help them flourish while also supporting their parents and siblings.”

Parent Rachael Cumming, who has two children with autism taking part, said: “It’s absolutely fantastic! There’s nothing like this around here for kids. The kids are loving it. Their social and emotional skills – which autistic kids struggle with – are flourishing – they’ve just blossomed.

‘Loving it’

“They’re actually playing with other children and autistic children find that very difficult. Instead, they’re engaging and loving it. They’re enjoying the structure of it and that they’re with other children like them. It’s exciting for them – they can let off steam on a Friday night and completely have fun.

“For me, I get to come down and have a cuppa with some other mums while the kids can play with other kids. It’s hard having autistic children – you feel lonely. I most enjoy that my children are coming here and having fun.”

To help fund the trust’s work, a fundraising dinner is being held at the Strathmore RFC Clubhouse on June 1. Speakers include noted teacher and rugby coach Bruce Aitchison, famous for his Egg Shaped Planet social media, coaching and motivational speaking. Tickets are £45pp for a three-course meal. A raffle will also be held.

The Strathmore Rugby Club Community 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, Scottish Rugby and the Scotland Rugby League. Its vision is that by next month it will have created a sustainable programme of projects centred on rugby, health and the community.

For details and dinner tickets go to the trust’s Facebook page at facebook.com/TSRCCT or email trust.bdc17@gmail.com .