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Manulla play their part for autism camps


OUT ON THE PITCH Children with autism who take part in the camps at Manulla FC are pictured with some club volunteers.  Pic: Conor McKeown

A Mayo soccer club is developing a ‘cubbie’ to help kids with autism

Oisin McGovern

THEY may be best known for their exploits on the soccer pitch, but the members of Manulla FC are fast developing a reputation for doing extraordinary things for special people.
Since 2019 a miniature wilderness nestled in the heart of Mayo has drawn children with autism from all over the county to its summer camps.
The Mayo League Super League club have become national leaders in creating a sporting and social setting that is inclusive and welcoming for people with sensory needs.
Now Manulla are aiming to become the first sporting club in Ireland to construct a ‘Cubbie’, a small room fully equipped to reduce sensory overload in people with autism.
The club are seeking to raise of €20,000 for a facility that will be available 24/7 to provide a calming and relaxing environment for adults and children.
When The Mayo News called to Manulla recently, all three of their pitches were alive as an evening chill descended with the glow of the early summer sun.
A group of special children had gathered on the astro-turf pitch for an hour of fun that they had been looking forward to all week.
The mothers who have brought them here cannot speak highly enough of what Manulla FC are doing.
The safety and serenity provided by the off-the-beaten path retreat is another plus for many parents.
“It’s an amazing facility,” says Paula McCartney who brought her eight-year-old boy, Euan from Westport.
“It’s somewhere to bring him where he can have fun and there is no pressure.”
Fiona McDonagh, mother of Aaron (11) and Oisín (5), says that Manulla provides a place for children who are frequently ‘forgotten about’.
“Before I had Manulla autism camp you felt quite lonely as a parent, you didn’t feel that there were other people in the same boat. You don’t feel alone any more, you feel that there is a community out there that you can lean on,” she explained.
Sensory rooms like the one proposed for Manulla have been rolled out in primary and secondary schools in recent years.
However, the multi-million-euro Aviva Stadium in Dublin is currently the only sports ground in the country with such a facility in place.
By constructing a ‘cubbie’, Manulla FC are taking the next step in creating an environment that is hospitable to those with sensory needs.
“Every child that goes into it has their own specific programme,” explains Mayo Football League Secretary John Durkan.
“They just go in, sit in a chair with a huge screen in front of them [and spend] ten minutes inside. It makes a huge difference from the point of relaxation.
“Everyone talks about inclusiveness, but it’s about sitting down and doing something about it and being proactive.”
As well as providing an ideal facility for occupational therapy, it is also envisaged that the ‘cubbie’ will help people with autism to fully participate in sport.
Fiona explains that children like her son often have nowhere to go if they have a tantrum in public.
Having a cubbie facility here will give parents peace of mind and will allow children to continue participating after experiencing sensory overload.
“If the clubs don’t put in the effort to do the training about how to work with children who are autistic, then autistic kids are kind of just left to the side” says Elisha Sweeney, who co-founded Mayo Autism Camp along with Collette Heaney.
“A lot of the time it looks like they don’t want to participate, but they actually do. My daughter would just stand back and watch everything that’s going on…she might be running around, but she takes it all in, and then a while later she might do some of it herself,” she explains while keeping a watchful eye on her daughter Clea (7).
Mark O’Connor, who coaches underage sides with Manulla, tells an interesting anecdote about his experience of coaching a boy who, unbeknownst to his team-mates, had autism.
“At our first away game against Ballinrobe last year I set a drill up behind the goal that all the lads had done but [he] had never done it and [he] couldn’t perform in the game,” he explained.
Afterwards, Mark learned that the player had been completely mentally exhausted by trying to comprehend the new drill, something which that can occur in autistic people when there is a change to their routine.
“The thing about having the inclusivity in the club is that for coaches like myself, we have to be made aware of it. There has to be more done to train people and coaches to make sure they know what to look out for and how to manage it.”
Luckily, looking out for people is exactly what Manulla FC do so well.
A group of ordinary people doing extraordinary things for special people.

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