Autism Friendly Football
A story by Rangers Charity Foundation SCIO
Autism Friendly Football allows young people on the spectrum to enjoy weekly football sessions providing the opportunity to have fun, become more physically active, develop life skills and raise confidence/self-esteem. Sessions also provide a respite and social environment for parents/carers.
What Autism Friendly Football did
The Rangers Charity Foundation provided 36 weekly football sessions for young people with autism whilst providing respite for their parents/carers. The sessions took place at pro soccer Newton Mearns and were split into four age groups covering young people from the ages of 6-16 years old. The project has been running for around four years now and we continue to look for ways we can adapt and improve in order to better meet the needs of everyone involved. An area of development this year has been our pathway towards competitive football.
Using our links with Team Utd and Autism Scotland we have continued to upskill grassroots coaches to enable them to better support young people with autism into mainstream football. However, this year we also put a team into the world’s first autism football league to allow players the opportunity to play matches for the first time. By continuing to develop links with local disability teams we have created a pathway so that when players age out of our sessions they are able to continue to take part in football.
All of our coaches that work on the project are specifically trained to manage the sessions in order to create a fun, safe and friendly environment. We have also put other measures in place to support the young people. For example: we send pictures of the venue and staff out before the young person attends for the first session; a start questionnaire for parents to provide triggers that upset their young person and any calming techniques they use. We also have a breakout room for anyone who becomes stressed or overwhelmed and the parents and coaches communicate on a regular basis.
Although the project does not work directly with the parents/carers, it has been created to give as much choice as possible on how they want to spend their break. The venue is just 5 minutes away from a large retail area and has fitness classes and a quiet café area on site. Most parents prefer to watch the sessions and socialise with other parents in similar circumstances to themselves.
The feedback we have received from both the parents and the young people about the project has been fantastic and allows us to keep improving.
What Rangers Charity Foundation SCIO has learned
Due to COVID there is even less out there for young people with Autism to get involved in. Services that parent/carers used for support are still not fully operational and might not come back at all. Our project is designed in a way to give our beneficiaries as much control over the activity as possible by listening to what they want and how can improve at every opportunity. It has allowed us to continue to meet their needs even during this more challenging time. We have developed a very strong working relationship with Team Utd that has allowed our participants and their families to get involved in more activities that normally they would miss out on. From the evaluation we have gathered there is definitely a need for more activities like this that can support young people with autism and give their parents/carers a well-earned break.
How Rangers Charity Foundation SCIO has benefitted from the funding
The support that the Rangers Charity Foundation has had from Better breaks has been incredible. As a funder they are regularly contactable and have a great understand of how projects work and the impact they can have. Without this backing we would be unable to offer this service and provide much needed enjoyment and support for our young people and their families.
Young people with autism will take part a fun sporting activity and feel more confident in a social environment resulting in new friendships.
84% of parents/carers reported that taking part in the project had improved their young persons social circle whilst 97% said that the project had helped improve communication skills for their young person. Taking part in the project has resulted in a lot of new friendships being made in a group of young people who can often be isolated due to their condition.
A (9) started attending this year. Mum S said: “I can’t even begin to express how much it has helped A’s social relationships. Sadly, he doesn’t have many close friends at school and doesn’t get invited to parties, social occasions, etc. He also hasn’t enjoyed any other social clubs he has attended so his social life is limited. The football sessions are his only social life at the moment and he speaks to some kids there, more than he ever does at school which is great to see. His confidence has increased, and his communication has improved.”
Parent/Carers increase their social groups and support network with people in similar circumstances allowing them to share coping mechanisms and feel better supported.
98% of parents/carers said that the project has helped to support them in their caring role. We strive to provide a variety of breaks to suit the needs of all our parents/carers. We have found that the most highlighted benefit is watching their young people enjoy themselves and being able to talk to others who understand their situation.
D (12) has attended the sessions since they first started. Mum D said: “It allows me as a parent to be able to socialise with other parents. Out with this club I find that hard to do, as I also have a disabled husband. Due to both their disabilities we are mostly housebound. Taking Dean once a week allows me to chat with other parents who totally understand the day-to-day struggles. We can talk honestly and openly without fear of judgment. Other parents do not understand our struggles and it can make you feel you are a bad parent. It also gives us the opportunity to support each other and give each other advice and reassurance.”
Autistic young people will be more physically active and better able to express themselves allowing carers to feel relaxed and less stressed.
100% of parents/carers said that taking part in autism friendly football has increased the amount of physical activity that their young person takes part in. There is very little out there in a sporting context that young people with autism can take part in. This session provides weekly activity and helps to build skill that can support the participants to adapt to mainstream activities. Getting the young people out the house and away from the PlayStation is a big challenge for some of our parents so providing an activity that they really enjoy has made this challenge a bit easier.
H (15) attends the sessions with Dad D who said: “There are very few, if any, opportunities for kids on the spectrum to play any sport with their peers in an environment that suits and supports them. It is a brilliant initiative. Even more valuable at the moment when many of the (very limited) Council facilities remain closed after COVID. Being in a sporting / social environment also pushes him to contribute and interact in a different way from school. It provides H with a focus and goal every week and a regular routine that helps me plan his week. Most importantly it’s something we can do together and to have it supported by our favourite football team gives us a real sense of pride and belonging.”
Additional project outcome
Local boys/girls clubs coaches will feel supported in including young people with autism into their mainstream teams.
100% of coaches who attended our autism awareness training said that they felt more equipped to support young people with autism into their sessions. Over the past 3 years we have now trained over 50 coaches from various grassroots clubs. C coach from Giffnock said: We are extremely grateful to Rangers for putting on these courses. We now have 8 staff members that have benefited from the training and developed a good relationship to support kids with autism into our mainstream and disability teams.