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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Football training helps integrate autistic children in UAE

Goals UAE is a programme that invites children on the autism spectrum to interact socially with mainstream activities.
Tommy Copper, right, leads Sarah al Mansouri, left to right, Rohith Ramakrishnan, and Fares Al Muhari through drills during the Goals UAE football session, an after school program for special needs children at the British School al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
Tommy Copper, right, leads Sarah al Mansouri, left to right, Rohith Ramakrishnan, and Fares Al Muhari through drills during the Goals UAE football session, an after school program for special needs children at the British School al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National

ABU DHABI // Goals UAE’s after-school football training sessions for children with autism have proven to be more than just a sports programme, also raising awareness among the community.

Since November, Goals UAE has been using the Al Khubairat campus for training sessions, inviting parents of autistic children, volunteers from other schools, behavioural therapists and football trainers to participate.

“It probably started out of a need,” said Khawla Barley, founder of the programme.

“In the United States and a lot of other places, you can find programmes for kids with autism the same way you can find other youth programmes.”

Ms Barley, whose son is on the autism spectrum, found that other parents shared her concern about a lack of activities, so she set out to start one herself.

“When you translate the word into Arabic, autism means ‘to be alone’ and that’s part of the problem, it’s people’s perception of autism.”

Her ultimate goal is not a football programme; she wanted it to be the starting point for a larger programme that includes other activities for children like hers.

“It’s still early days and we didn’t want to get inundated, because everyone we spoke to said there is such a need,” Ms Barley said. “So we started small, and already you can tell when you see them that it really makes the kids and their parents happy.”

Michelle Ziolkowski, whose son is enrolled in Goals UAE, said the programme was inclusive.

“When I see my son out there, and he’s enjoying it more every week, just from a personal perspective, it just makes me incredibly happy that Suheil has an activity that he can feel a part of,” she said.

Outside school, she added, Suheil does not have many interactions with other children and she finds that Goals has helped him become more social.

Goals UAE is currently in the pilot phase. So far, there are parents, coaches from the ProActive Soccer School and professional advisers for students with learning difficulties from the New England Centre for Children.

“Autistic children are just like other children. They just want to be loved, they want to be understood and they want to communicate. Our job is to find a way,” said Kasia Kopacz, who is the lead therapist in the New England centre

She said that on a day-to-day basis, children with autism, just like other youth, need to participate in activities to further develop their sense of engagement with others.

“We want to make sure that when we have typical kids integrated with kids with autism, they absorb that they can learn through observation knowing that that’s how they play, to teach them what is typical,” Ms Kopacz said.

One of the problems that children with autism have to deal with is the inability to engage in group activities and interact with others, making football, or sports in general, a way to break that disinclination.

“I think it’s brilliant because it allows them to feel normal and it gives them the opportunity to play just like everyone else,” said Seth Amoafo, director of ProActive. “We are trying to give them a lifelong love of sport.”

As much as the programme is developmental, Goals UAE is also an initiative to raise awareness and introduce children to the idea of interacting with their peers who have learning disabilities.

To do so, the programme includes peer volunteers and pupils from Sheikh Zayed Private Academy who are relatively the same age as the participants of Goals UAE, to help promote understanding.

“When we started we had no idea what it was going to be like, but now we look forward to every Wednesday,” Mr Amoafo said.

Goals UAE is currently looking for partnerships and volunteers to help them and can be reached via their Facebook page www.facebook.com/pages/Goals-UAE/1545670922335262

nalwasmi@thenational.ae