Saturday 17 August 2019

Austism camps fill the GAP

There are several special needs inclusion summer camps up and running around the country. Kathy Donaghy talks to some of the parents who, not only depend on them, but run some of them so their children get to join in the holiday fun

Michael Mullin, who is 14, is involved in inclusion rugby, run by volunteers at Corinithians Rugby Club in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure
Michael Mullin, who is 14, is involved in inclusion rugby, run by volunteers at Corinithians Rugby Club in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

At the Galway Autism Project (GAP), weekly camps starts every morning at 10am and children do a bit of what co-ordinator Aisling Colreavy calls "absolutely everything".

Baking, arts and crafts, walks to the beach, animation and yoga all take place during GAP's camps which Aisling explains are designed to reflect the interests of the children.

The camps are broken up into the different age groups with a 'Mind Warrior' camp scheduled for later this summer for older children, which is based on promoting positive mental health and includes back woods adventures.

GAP, which is based in the city's Laurel Park, was set up in 2011 to fill a gap in the provision of services for children with autism. In an ideal world a place like GAP wouldn't exist, but unfortunately services for children with autism are getting worse, according to Aisling. "Children can wait two to three years for a diagnosis and then wait another 18-24 months for services. It's such a tragic thing because the minute you hear autism you know that early intervention is key," she says.

GAP was formed by parents of children of autism who got together after recognising their strength in numbers. In 2015, GAP took on a shared space in a building in Laurel Park. "If we're doing our job we're going to do ourselves out of a job. I hope that in 40 years' time there's no need for organisations like us," says Aisling.

"There are a lot of reasons why a child with autism may not be able to access mainstream clubs or camps. They might need a bit more supervision or they may be a flight risk. They may have barriers to communicating or they could be overwhelmed by the numbers," she says.

At GAP the camp sizes are kept small and the camps are run by fully trained volunteers. "There's a misconception about autism that people like to be on their own, but social isolation is a real issue for adults with autism. It has such a negative effect on their self-esteem. We have three year-olds doing arts and crafts this week and we hope that when they grow up after coming to a place like this they will feel accepted and will see autism as a positive part of their lives," she says.

At Galway Corinthians Rugby Club, former rugby player Derek Niland runs inclusive rugby every Saturday morning with up to 28 children aged between six and 16 taking part. Derek, who was last month awarded the IRFU's All-Ireland League Volunteer of the Year for his work in setting up tag disability rugby, says they'll keep going all summer.

"Everyone does the same thing. We start with a little jog and then we do drills and we do balance exercises. Everyone gets a rugby ball and we might do something like an egg and spoon using a ladle and a tennis ball as it's good for co-ordination," says Derek who has two other coaches helping him every Saturday morning.

The session is non-contact because, as Derek explains, some of the children wouldn't like people coming into their space.

They might have hot dogs or ice cream at the end and Derek says fun is high on the agenda. "If people are not laughing, there's no point in doing it," he says.

"We train at 10am because all the other teams train at that time. We're just another team out there training. The whole idea is to bring the kids into a club. Some of the kids would be non-verbal. It's about mixing and socialising with exercise thrown into it. People contact me all the time. If we stop there's nothing for the kids - there's a massive need for this," says Derek.

Assumpta Mullin's son Michael (14), who started going to Corinthians for inclusion rugby last winter, is benefiting greatly from his weekly sessions. While his mum says they were very much a family steeped in the Gaelic tradition - her three older children all play football and camogie - she says Corinthians has been a great space for all of them as a family.

"It can be very hard to get into activities. You want your child to be integrated as much as possible, but you have to understand the confines of the disability as well. You have to try and find out what's available. You don't know about things until you go looking for them," she says.

"We had never stood in Corinthians ground before, but we said we'd give it a go. From the get-go we felt welcomed. I can't describe the richness of it.

"If you were to ask me to find three people that you'd like your child to be with I couldn't have found any better than Derek and the other coaches. Michael loves it and feels fully encouraged," says Assumpta.

"If these kids don't want to do something, they won't do it. I don't think there's any child with a disability that doesn't like being in a setting where they are welcomed. I can't believe how included he's been made to feel in such a short space of time," she says.

At the Rainbow Club Centre for Autism in Cork, there's no such thing as taking a break for summer. The club, which runs activities for children with autism from Monday to Saturday, was set up in 2015 with 22 children. 408 children come through its doors every week and 324 are on a waiting list to join.

Karen O'Mahony, who founded the centre with her husband John, says they're hoping to move to a bigger premises in Little Island which would mean they could run more activities and take more children.

"As parents of two boys with autism we know how hard it is to find somewhere that can understand your child. In a bigger place we'd be able to do a lot more. If we closed for the summer that's a huge gap for children. This is a community within a community and the families are dependent on us at this time of year more than anything else," says Karen.

Families from all over the country from as far away as Clonakilty and even Dungarvan in Co Waterford come to Rainbow with their children because there is such a dearth of activities for children with autism, according to Karen.

One of the first children into Rainbow was six year-old Luke O'Mahony from Crosshaven in Cork. His mum Denise says the summer months can be very isolating for children with autism and for their parents too.

Denise says there are many parents struggling over these months watching their children unable to cope with a change in their daily routine. "For the child who thrives on routine to have nothing for nine or 10 weeks in the summer, their whole world is turned upside down," she says.

Rainbow Club provides not just a space for children, but also a space for adults and siblings of children with autism to come to and feel understood.

"We have an amazing group of mums who are friends. We'd be chatting constantly. It's that support system that as a parent you'd be lost without," says Denise.


Dedicated swim school

Johanna Tilley-Rock runs the country's first dedicated swim school for children with autism. A retired member of the Defence Forces, Johanna developed a special programme as part of her, Just Train Right (JTR) Swim School, to teach children with autism how to swim and be safe around water.

She says she developed the programme as more and more parents of children with autism contacted her to see if she could teach their child to swim. The programme started a year ago at Spin Activity Centre in Naas, Co Kildare a year ago.

Since then she has also started a programme to train swim teachers to develop their skills to understand the additional needs of autistic swimmers.

Susan Hogan says she knew her son Eoin, aged eight, wouldn't have been able to do mainstream swimming lessons, but he loved going to the pool with her. She approached Johanna about lessons last March as she was keen on the one-to-one teaching model.

"Initially I was sceptical. I thought they're never going to manage a child with autism but it's going so well. All of the kids in the group are doing great - they're all swimming," says Susan.

⬤ See jtrswimschool.ie for more information.

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