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Autism Camp all about taking part

Sport

HAVING FUN Children are pictured taking part in some activities at the Autism Camp at Manulla FC. Pic: John Corless

A recent visit to an Autism Camp hosted by Manulla FC proved to be an uplifting experience

Feature
John Corless

A PROFESSIONAL League of Ireland footballer said to me recently that you never know where a phone call can bring you. He was referring to an unexpected call he received from a club he later joined, having no previous expectation of moving in that direction.
But it got me thinking of unexpected calls I have received and where they brought me.
One such call was on a Friday evening last November from Mike Finnerty, the Sports Editor of The Mayo News.
“Manulla are doing something in the morning and it sounds interesting. Would you be up for it?” he asked.
The term ‘would you be up for it?’ can be deciphered in many ways, but in the shorthand of sports journalism, I have learned that it roughly translates to: ‘I have no idea what exactly this is. It might be a story to catch global attention or a complete waste of time.
‘Will you go, see what is happening, get a few pictures and, if you think there is anything in it, write it up and we’ll try and squeeze it in.’
And so, armed with cameras, notebooks, dictaphones and winter clothes, off I went to Manulla FC the following morning.
What unfolded in Manulla on that Saturday in November might not make global headlines, but it should. And Manulla FC should receive a global award for their involvement.
As should the main organiser Colette Heaney and her chief assistant, Elisha Sweeney. And for a country that loves our heroes, we don’t honour the real ones often enough.
Colette and Elisha are real heroes. Not by choice; indeed, they would both be embarrassed at the thought. They are heroes by accident and, in some ways, by necessity.
As individuals and as a society, we often look to government for solutions, when the solution is closer to hand and is a better resolution than any a national government could ever deliver. The autism camp run by Manulla FC last October and November is a beautiful example of such a solution.
What Colette and Elisha have done is simple.
They have organised — through Facebook — a loose support group for parents of young children with autism in the general Mayo area. They have utilised the superb central facilities of Manulla Football Club and involved the members there.
And in the process of operating a simple football camp they have enriched the lives of all involved in unmeasurable ways; your scribe included.
This is a textbook example of a group identifying a need, devising a plan, and implementing that plan to great effect. Of course, the facilities of Manulla FC were vital.
As was some initial training from CARA, an organisation providing a collaborative and partnership platform to increase sport and physical activity opportunities for people with disabilities across Ireland.
All the pieces were already in the box; all this took was the vision of Colette and Elisha to create the picture of the jigsaw.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a life-long developmental disability, characterised by social and communication impairments and by restricted interests and repetitive behaviours.
An extremely wide range of individual differences is represented within this grouping, from individuals who have a severe learning disability to those with average and above average intelligence.
“People with disabilities deserve to have the same opportunities to be active as everyone else.” So says Niamh Daffy, the CEO of CARA, an organisation whose mission is ‘Putting disability sport and inclusive physical activity at the heart of our nation.’
CARA provided some training for leaders at Manulla in advance of this project.
The reality is, however, that opportunities for people with disabilities and autism can be limited. What Colette and Elisha and Manulla Football Club have done increases the opportunities for the participants, and also, critically, increases the awareness of the limits organised society imposes, often accidentally, on people with autism.

Personal stories
Here are the stories of some of the people involved in the recent Autism camp at Manulla FC.

Mossy Lally
Manulla FC
“EVERY summer for the past few years, Mayo Autism come here for two weeks and run camps. It’s great because we have the space here for them to run around and enjoy themselves.” explained Mossy.
“I met Colette Heaney just by chance in a shop during the summer and we were talking about it. She said it would be great if we could do something outside of the two-week window – maybe a Saturday morning or whenever, and obviously we were delighted to be asked to host the camps.”
Mossy said that he was surprised at the reaction of the underage coaches at Manulla to the proposal.
“We have a great bunch of coaches here for the girls’ and boys’ underage teams and they were delighted to get involved and help the Autism camp. The coaches have been involved in our own season since March or April, and have put in a lot all season and we didn’t want to burden them. But they were delighted to get involved.”
The camp started on the first Saturday of October on the club’s astro-turf facility.
“The astro area is great for anything involving children due to the high perimeter fence and controlled entry and exit. It is a very safe environment to run something like this in.”
Mossy explained that the camp ran for eight weeks, and that the club is hoping to put it in their coaching calendar going forward.
“We’re going to open it up to all special needs children, not just autism,” he said.
“That’s what football clubs and sporting clubs should be about – to use their facilities not just to generate and develop their own players as such. It’s been really, really good. We got our underage players involved and they have been absolutely fantastic.”
Mossy said that the children using the service are from all over Mayo, as well as west Roscommon, and are aged from three to 10 years-old.
“By the nature of autism the coaching can’t be structured like it would if you were coaching Under 6s or Under 8s or Under 10s, or girls or boys,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that.
“The main issue that we find is the communication issue but it’s all about being patient, getting the kids to enjoy it and giving a small bit of relief to the parents while it is on.
“And put a smile on everyone’s faces in the process. We find that the young coaches we have here and the underage players, have a natural way of connecting with the kids coming in for the camps and it is fantastic to see.”
Mossy said he feels that camps like this one should not just be confined to Manulla.
“We don’t want this portrayed as ‘Manulla Football Club are mighty because they are doing this or doing that’,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of sporting organisations around the county and they should be doing this themselves – it shouldn’t just be Manulla.
“The parents shouldn’t have to travel far from their homes, because there are sporting organisations in every town and parish in the county and in every county.
“These clubs could be doing it as well. It’s not that we have a problem doing it. We haven’t. In fact, we’re delighted to do it. But other clubs could be doing it too. It could, and should, be integrated into the activities of all clubs.”

Colette Heaney
Camp organiser
“THIS is an initiative we have with Manulla Football Club to operate a camp and teach the children with autism some football skills,” said the Belcarra woman, who is one of the main driving forces behind the Autism Camp.
“My son Tom is seven and has autism. All my family, myself included, have been involved in sport through the years and I know the importance of children being involved in team sports for physical fitness and health. I felt that this was really important for Tom and I can see huge development in him since we started coming here.
“The camp ran for eight weeks. We have held camps here the past few years for children with autism. With the help of an organisation called CARA, we did some training for the members of Manulla Football Club on Autism in sport.
“They trained the coaches at Manulla how to train the children with autism.  They gave us skills and tips on how to interact with the children and how to teach them the skills.”
Colette said children with autism learn a little bit differently than other children; they need time and space in order to learn each skill.
“Clubs are not really geared for children with autism turning up for their training sessions,” she explained. “There’s a lot of drills and waiting turns and the like, so this camp prepares them for that. The response at Manulla has been unbelievable.
“We nearly have one-to-one for each child so they get individual attention, in order to learn the skills of throwing and kicking and passing the ball – all of that.”
Colette was full of praise for what Manulla FC have done for the initiative.
“It’s a great place to come. It’s not on a main road. The enclosed astro-turf pitch is a great facility. They offered the facility to us whenever we would need it. We felt it was a very safe place to come, where families would know the children would be well looked after.”
Colette said the experience had exceeded her expectations and that the parents have been thrilled with the outcome.
“They have seen their child kick a ball, maybe for the first time. The have seen the wonderful interaction between the autistic children and the teenager volunteers here at Manulla.
“It has been lovely to watch the relationships develop over the eight weeks, and when the children see some of the teenagers, they are mad to run on to the pitch.
“One father told me today that this was the first time that he has been able to come to an activity with his son and they have enjoyed it, and he is ten years old.
“That speaks volumes in itself.”
Colette said that children came to the camp from all over the county and beyond.
“It has huge appeal. They have come from Ballaghaderreen, Achill, Westport, Ballina, Killala, Ballindine, Claremorris, Castlebar, Kiltimagh, all areas of the county. The parents don’t mind the travel. They want their children to be part of the community, and go back to their own community and maybe join in with a local team, when they have learned the basic skills.”

David Cunninhgham
Chairperson, Manulla FC,
“TWENTY or so volunteers from the club are involved each week in the Saturday camps.
“It’s a fun day where we teach the children the basics of football in a low-pressure environment. At the start we were the ones that didn’t know – we learned more out of this as a club and as individuals, than the children themselves have learned.
“It has been a fantastic experience for Manulla FC.”
David said that the club has over 500 members of all ages and a cross section of the membership is involved in these camps.
“We feel it is important for our younger members, especially, to get to know the other spectrums that are out there and be used to them and be able to work with them, not just here, but in later life.”

Elisha Sweeney
Camp organiser
“I WASN’T sure at the beginning how it would work out or what it would be like,” said the Castlebar woman, whose daughter, Clea (7) has autism.
“I remember going home after the first session completely overwhelmed at how fantastic it was, how happy the kids were and the parents were. The turnout of volunteers from Manulla was absolutely amazing. They really came out in force to help out with the kids.”  
Elisha said that Clea struggles with some of her motor skills and she joins in a bit with the football, but catching, kicking and throwing a ball are difficult for her.
“They are things we feel are very important for her to learn,” she said. “They will help her with her writing and eating and drinking and stuff like that. Football skills are so important for children on the spectrum. Clea is doing well with it now and she is very excited when I tell her we are going to football.”
Elisha said that the parents all hoped it would be an annual event.
“The important thing is that they learn the basic skills. Then they can join a local club and join in there. My other daughter goes to Castlebar Mitchels LGFA and Clea goes too, but she didn’t have the basic skills to join in. So she will learn the skills here and will get on better and be able to join in. It’s fantastic for her.”

Andrew McGing
Parent
“A lot of the kids at the camp might never have kicked a ball until they came here,” explained Andrew, whose son Ethan has autism.
“For some it is getting out of a comfort zone and it is great exercise out in the fresh air. We got involved because of Colette. She has a Facebook page that we follow and she organised it with the club, posted it, and we saw it.”
Andrew said that he brought Ethan to Manulla previously when they ran cycling lessons.
“It’s a great facility here. It is very safe and enclosed. It’s a fantastic club and they do fantastic work. I knew very little about the club before we came out here with Ethan. It’s fantastic how the members give up their free time and help the children get an experience they wouldn’t otherwise get.”

Nathan Stuart
Camp attendee
“NATHAN (11) has autism,” his mother, Sharon, told The Mayo News. “He attends the Autism Unit at Swinford National School. We live in Kiltimagh and there is no similar facility in the school there.”
Sharon said that Nathan has been participating in the Manulla camp and it has been brilliant for him. “It has significantly improved his social skills along with his confidence.
“It is following through into school and into the playground. He is now getting to play with the other kids, especially at football because he understands what they are looking to do.
“The benefits have a knock-on effect throughout school.
“My brothers would be big into Man United, and we grew up watching football in the house and Nathan likes football but prefers Gaelic,” added Sharon.
“We are related to Mayo GAA goalkeepers Eugene Lavin and Peter Burke. Eugene is my mother’s first cousin. We are very proud of them and Nathan adores them and, now, thanks to Manulla, Nathan wants to be a goalkeeper too.”
Nathan said he enjoyed the football at Manulla.
“I learned how to do trick-shots,” he said, “and how to kick footballs into a goal, and I learned how to be a goalkeeper.”
Nathan said he’d like to play for Man United.

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