#AutismInRugby - by Lisa Johnson

#AutismInRugby - by Lisa Johnson

A while ago (Part 1 of this story can be found here - http://www.rugbyunited.org.uk/content/rugby-works-autism-lisa-johnson) Lisa shared her experience of autism in rugby and how the sport had helped her son Ellis' development. Lisa has kindly come back to update us on Ellis' life with rugby. This is a truly emotional story and if you are thinking of clicking off, DON'T! I highly recommend that you read on and join the journey! Huge thanks to Lisa for letting us host part 2 of the story!
 
Well the first year of contact has been and gone and we are about to embark on our journey as the Littleborough RUFC Under 10’s…and wow...what a year!
 
As Ellis has got older, he has most certainly found things a lot more difficult to cope with.  We cannot give you a distinctive reason why, which saddens us as parents. It saddens us because we feel as parents we should know why, and that we need to be doing something that’s proactive to help him through these tough times. Every day is a battle for him. Every day a demon rears an ugly head. But in the midst of all this…there is a saviour to our family. Rugby.  Using the word saviour may sound a bit extreme to some of you, but I can assure you in this case it isn’t. 
 The game of rugby union is based on 5 core values. These are Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship (TREDS).  This year both Ellis’ dad and I have seen him try to adopt these 5 core values of rugby in aspects of his life he finds difficult, like social situations and school. We truly believe they are helping define our son for the person he is. However, there are bad days, really bad days, where even as his parents, we question ourselves and our parenting skills, and when we are on the brink of desperation, we feel like we could just give up. However, when we sit back and think, we realise that there has been breakthroughs, there have been celebrations and dare I say it spates of happiness, and that gives us a glimmer of hope for him. 
 
We look back at the progress Ellis has made since joining Littleborough RUFC, and the hard work his coach, Sam Dickinson and Assistant Coach Gareth Sharrocks, puts in week in and week out, for him to be able to develop into the player he is fast becoming, and in to a young man we are going to be very proud of. You see as parents, we believe that the 5 core values that they both instil in to him are not just values in a game; they are a way of life. In all aspects of life, it’s become the ‘norm’ to be a team player who is respectful, who finds enjoyment in things, who can show discipline and who can also become a good sportsman. On the very few days we see Ellis happy, this is the little boy that we see developing. Furthermore, his coach acknowledges Ellis and his difficulties, and over the last couple of years, he has got to know him for the person he really is. So by accepting Ellis and his difficulties as they are, has made him want to become regularly involved in the sport, therefore boosting his self-confidence. So much so that when his confidence is at a high, he aims to be wearing the red rose on his chest in the future. And who are we as his parents to not help him believe he can?  This also goes to show the power of a coach who puts in time, effort, thoughtfulness in to the training and the support of his players, and treating them as the individuals as they are. I feel a lot can be learnt from this within the sport, but also outside it.
 
As discussed in my previous piece, autistic children tend to not consider others in the heat of the moment and they can lack empathy for others. The core values of respect and sportsmanship that has been taught well by his coaches, has demonstrated to Ellis over the year that it’s not just your team mates that you respect and show good sportsmanship to, but that of the opponents and the officials too. This showing of respect has helped Ellis to develop his social skills, and become a better friend in both his rugby life and his personal life. There is still a lot of work to do personally, but his positive relationships with his team mates, has expanded to a point where he has now been invited to parties and sleepovers. He was never invited to anything before he took up rugby, which is quite common for autistic children.
  
Even though there is no win or lose in his age grade, rugby is still good practice for him to realise that life is not always going to go the way you want it to, and that it takes hard work and commitment to get where you want to be. Rugby is character building, especially when things don’t go the way that is wanted. Autistic children can find this very difficult to deal with, as their feelings of frustration can cause them to have a meltdown, their senses can go into overdrive and it can make them feel they are of no self-worth, which then reflects on their self-confidence. However, because rugby union is a structured approach, it provides Ellis and other autistic players’ building blocks. These building blocks allow players time to learn the basics before contact and then gradually builds up to a specialism. 
 
Even though these building blocks are provided, autistic children find their senses can go into extreme overload. Imagine a label in your clothes annoying you, rubbing your skin, itching you to distraction, now times that by a thousand! To help ease these difficulties they suffer, they usually have a sensory diet. A sensory diet is a series of physical activities tailored to give each child the sensory input they need. For example children who tend to get overstimulated, their sensory diet can help them come down from an overloaded state and feel calm. Or children who feel sluggish can get into a “just right” state by doing activities that help them feel more alert, this where rugby is fulfilling Ellis’ sensory need as part of his sensory diet. Rugby is a contact sport; therefore it is a sensory activity that helps to improve his focus, attention and helps him to be able to self-regulate his emotions. Additionally, Ellis also finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing everyday tasks for him and can result in behavioural problem and anxiety, however through the use of rugby, it helps to give an awareness of his body in space and increases the ability to regulate his sensory input. The sport of rugby is really as inclusive as it possibly can be.
 
As mentioned previously, being a parent to an autistic child is extremely challenging especially when it comes to discipline. Over the year we have learnt that we need to be armed with an array of strategies when it comes to helping Ellis managing his self-control. Autistic children cannot always think straight, and make the right choices. Rugby has certainly helped with this, and has encouraged Ellis to regulate his emotions and identify them, but yet again this is an on-going problem, and may never be resolved, however he has got a solid foundation from the sport that has a family we can help build upon. It’s like with any aspect in life; there are rules and laws to help keep people safe, both from physical, mental and emotional harm. He doesn’t always understand this and it is a continual work in progress, but as he grows older and hopefully learns that the laws of rugby are there to help safeguard him and his team-mates, he will also take this discipline off the field into his own life.  
 
Over the past year Ellis has been able to enjoy the social aspects of rugby. He has surprisingly enjoyed being able to mix with children whom he doesn’t know, and participate well in skills clinics run by the Sale Sharks and their amazing community coaches. Ellis being given these opportunities has contributed to creating an environment where Ellis can focus on not just having fun, but learning the importance of being the best sportsman he can be. This has been reflected many times by recognition from opponent’s coaches, despite his difficulties. Furthermore, over the year both his dad and I have seen him grow into a child where he will take more risks thanks to rugby. He will confidently go to his rugby friends and join in, without now standing alone looking on, needing encouragement. Having such an inclusive sport as a way and means of him building up to be the person he wants to be, as not only helped him to respond as an individual to the sport, but also as a valued member and player at Littleborough RUFC.Finally, he uses his disability as his ability. When Ellis is out on the playing field with his team mates, there is a space for him to show his individuality as a player, rather than just ‘a child with autism.’ Children on the autism spectrum can be very conscientious and committed to their chosen activity. Because of this commitment, we has seen that he can test himself physically, and push himself to his boundaries, and has a parent our only wish is he builds on this, and eventually become a premiership player, with the possibility of wearing the red rose, just like he dreams of doing.
 
 
Written by Lisa Johnson  #autisminrugbyworks