An excitable group of young boys were happy to brave a little bit of rain in Holt to get their first rugby training session of the year underway.
There were tackling drills, passing exercises and kicking practice. But these boys aren’t training for a local competition or the next big game.
They’re part of Sense Rugby, an occupational therapy program designed to help kids who may find it difficult to be part of a sports team.
“We predominately have kids who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),” Canberra coordinator Craig Robberds said.
“In our Southside team we also have kids who have cerebral palsy … but this is for kids who find mainstream sport difficult; you don’t have to be diagnosed.”
Craig brought the program to Canberra, entering its third year in the capital. Sense Rugby started in Sydney in 2015 and was founded by paediatric occupational therapist Carlien Parahi and Australian Rugby Sevens Olympian Jesse Parahi.
Occupational therapists and University of Canberra students run alongside the children during training.
Craig said it was a way for the kids to develop a sense of community and make friends.
“I love seeing their smiles and development over time,” he said.
“It’s confidence building as well. We’ll have kids who, at the start, just hug the tackle bag, where now they get into it with more energy.
“They also learn about managing their emotions, taking turns and keeping themselves regulated, which can be very important for kids with ASD.”
Local parent Richard Carter is new to the program, bringing his two sons Ethan (8) and Aiden (6).
They found the program after Richard went searching for a physical outlet that was also on their level.
“We tried a few things, we had them in martial arts to practice controlling their bodies and develop their coordination, but the environment wasn’t quite where they’re at,” he said.
“We wanted to find them a program that was set up with them in mind, rather than trying to get them to fit with the program.”
ASD can impact people’s ‘proprioception’, which is a sense that tells us where our bodies are in relation to other objects and in open spaces and also how our body parts are moving.
Some people with ASD can have difficulty understanding where their body is in relation to other objects and so can appear clumsy.
“Their balance and coordination can be affected, so they can appear kind of awkward, so the program can help with that,” Richard said.
“But it’s also about just getting them more confident and having some fun. It’s great to see them getting out there and being part of it all.
“I had originally just brought along Ethan and he loved it. He came back so excited, so Aiden had to come along this time; he didn’t want to be left behind.”
Brett Butler is another parent who has two boys, also aged eight and six, taking part in the program. His eight-year-old has been diagnosed with ASD, while his six-year-old has not.
“We tried soccer last winter, [my eight-year-old] was ready for Peewees, but he’s not ready to be playing with his own age group; it’s too much of a quantum leap,” he said.
“He has coordination issues and the idea of belonging in a team can be challenging for him. Kids sport is still bedlam anyway, but he doesn’t have that full concept of a team yet.”
Brett also said finding a sporting program designed for children who have different expectations was important to his family.
“Having [my son] hang out with other kids on the spectrum is great, as is being in a program that’s been developed with an understanding of what they need to cater to,” he said.
“With the sensory needs of children on the spectrum, we want to get them away from the screens, play and be active, build a stronger body and just be a happy kid.”
Sense Rugby sessions are held Monday from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm in Gowrie or Wednesday from 4 pm to 5 pm in Holt. There is a signup fee, which covers 10 sessions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the Canberra program.