Sale Sharks' support for autism shines through as they surprise the under 10s from Littleborough

Sale Sharks' support for autism shines through as they surprise the under 10s from Littleborough

Congratulations to the U10s from Littleborough who were the third winners of the Aviva Grassroots Giveaway competition.

The budding young rugby players and their parents got a huge surprise the other week, as they were invited to have their training session at Sale Sharks’ very own Carrington Training Ground.

As the parents and players arrived, there was a real sense of anticipation in the air.  They were soon rewarded, as we revealed that the club had won the Aviva Grassroots Giveaway Competition and, in doing so, secured £2,000 worth of kit and equipment for their club plus a training session with an Aviva Premiership community coach, which was about to take place.

Everyone was so excited as the training session got underway. The young players looked like they were having a brilliant time practicing their catching, passing and tackling. After half an hour, Darren, the community coach, called the young players over to talk them through the rest of their session. 

Darren told the players that he had enlisted the help of a few of his friends. Then, to the amazement of the group from Littleborough, Sale Sharks players James O’Connor, Halani Aulika, Paolo Odogwu and Andrei Ostrikov came over to greet the team with high fives and fist bumps before joining in with the training session.

Having the professional players train alongside the juniors from Littleborough gave the young players a rare opportunity to practice with some of rugby’s elite. They learned some new tips and got a chance to show off some of their skills — it was a great surprise. Both the Littleborough U10s and their parents looked like they had a great time as they thanked the players and had photographs with them afterwards.

There’s a place for autism in rugby

The application Aviva received on behalf of Littleborough Rugby Club was submitted by one of the players’ parents, Lisa Johnson, who detailed how the club have supported her son Ellis who has autism.

In Lisa’s own words, Littleborough is “a shining example of an inclusive club and has helped develop my autistic son as a player by taking his needs into consideration, which has improved his self confidence in all aspects of his life”.

Despite autism affecting 1 in every 100 people in the UK, many people are still unaware of what it means and the effect it can have. Autism is a lifelong, developmental condition that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people. It can affect a person's social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour and is often considered as an invisible disability, which can make it even harder for those affected and their families.

What rugby has given Ellis is, in many ways, immeasurable. What is also important is the support all the families receive and the confidence they have knowing that they are putting their children in a safe and accepting environment. 

Premiership rugby clubs are also striving to make rugby accessible for everyone. I recently visited Sale Sharks ahead of their match against Saracens and met Alex, a Sale Sharks fan, whose son also suffers with autism. Whilst we were talking, Alex told me about some of the brilliant things that Sale Sharks are doing to make the club more autism friendly. Here are just a few of them.

Rugby for everyone

Sale Sharks has an impressive disability and inclusive rugby programme called In the Pack, which aims to give individuals with a disability the opportunity to play rugby. It has proved so popular that it has recently been expanded to include wheelchair rugby, mixed ability rugby, walking rugby and inclusive tag rugby.

Quiet room

At the AJ Bell Stadium (the home of Sale Sharks Rugby Club), they have introduced a quiet room for people with learning and sensory impairments, so that everyone can come and experience a Premiership Rugby match regardless of whether they have any additional needs and requirements. The quiet room provides a place for those with autism to escape from the atmosphere at a match if it becomes too much, relax for 10 minutes and then go back out and enjoy the rest of the game. This room has also recently been highlighted by none other than Aviva ambassador Will Greenwood who applauded the initiative back in November, click here to read what Will Greenwood had to say.

Support beyond education

In addition, Sale has also launched a new project for young people aged 9-21 years old with autism, called Play On. The project will run sessions on a fortnightly basis and aims to work with these individuals to develop their social, character and employability skills through challenging them in order to give them the best possible foundation for when they leave education.

If you, a friend or family member suffers with autism and are concerned about playing or watching rugby, get in contact with your local grassroots or Premiership Rugby club and find out what they can offer. My recent experiences have shown that not only does autism does have a place in rugby, but the club can also provide a support system, a place for social interaction, building friendships and a place to challenge yourself and grow.

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