AUTISTIC CHILDREN are often seen as locked in a constant struggle to communicate with the world around them. However, a new study, which claims to be the first of its kind, has shown team sports may help children with autism spectrum disorders interact with their peers.
The six-week project, run at Cartha Queens Park rugby club in Glasgow, took 27 children aged seven to 16 with ASD from around the city to see if they could benefit from rugby coaching.
The idea came from club member Stevie Kerr, whose son has Asperger's syndrome and plays youth rugby. As youth co-ordinator at the club, he knew Duncan Clark, the clinical director of child adolescent mental health in Glasgow, who runs the service responsible for diagnosing youngsters with autism. A keen rugby player himself, Mr Clark agreed to manage the project, although he admits the prospect was daunting.
"We really didn't know what they were going to be capable of, so we had to create a programme of rugby appropriate to their needs," he said.
Specially trained coaches started at a low level with a non-contact game, but it quickly became clear the youngsters were capable of more.
"With one or two exceptions, the children absolutely loved the physical rough and tumble of the full contact exercises," said Mr Clarke. "This is quite something when we consider the sensory issues many of these children experience."
Evaluation was carried out, using parental questionnaires, of how the children related to their peers and of their pro-social behaviour (helping others).
It claimed 53 per cent of those taking part showed improvement in both those areas after the project, although around a quarter showed no improvement and another quarter deteriorated. Of the 22 who attended the first session, 17 dropped out before the end.
Mr Clark said the group fell into three categories: those easily capable of mainstream rugby; those needing extra help to improve physical ability and communication skills; and a third with needs too complex to cope with mainstream rugby.
One participant, Drew Daly, did so well on the scheme he now plays for one of the club's youth teams. When the teenager, who has Asperger's, played football, the calls from nine other boys for him to pass the ball were too much for him.
Although he has a high-functioning form of autism, he could not cope with the social pressure. But now, aged 15, he has taken to rugby like a duck to water.
"I want to carry on with the rugby as far as I can take it," Drew said. "I mostly like being in the scrum, but my mum hates that."
Yvonne Daly beams proudly. After years of protecting him by accompanying him to various sports clubs over the years, she feels he is safe with the rugby coaches at Cartha Queens Park.
"We tried other sports like Tae Kwan Do, but he couldn't cope with the instruction of it all," said Mrs Daly. "The fact that the coaches here know about autism makes all the difference."
She believes Drew, who is sitting Standard grade maths this year, is now much more confident around mainstream youngsters, and will be able to get a job and have a normal life.
Andrew Jolliffe's autism is more severe but he, too, has blossomed with the physical activity. His mother Charmaine said: "He likes to run up and down and here he can do that safely - they say 'that's just Andrew'; and I had no idea he had such good hand-eye co-ordination."
Glasgow City Council is said to be keen to develop the scheme further, and the Scottish Society for Autism believes other sports could run similar programmes.