Saturday 20 July 2019

The Dublin sports club is helping autistic children thrive: 'The Rainbow Warriors make dreams come true'

From left, Tom Ryan, David Geoghegan, Liam Shepard and Jack McDermott
From left, Tom Ryan, David Geoghegan, Liam Shepard and Jack McDermott

Victoria White

The Rainbow Warriors athletics club in Dublin 4 is giving my son and other children a real boost.

"If he doesn’t play I’m not playing!”

That’s what athletics coach Colin Donnelly told the other boys before leaving the game and walking home with his autistic brother.

“It was hard, going home together. It was the 1980s and the word ‘autism’ wasn’t bandied about.”

Colin Donnelly encourages Jack McDermott at training
Colin Donnelly encourages Jack McDermott at training

Maybe he’s trying to work it out of his system by starting the first athletics club in Ireland for autistic kids and teens.

The Rainbow Warriors first ran out at Irishtown Stadium in Dublin 4 last October after months of background work and years of dreaming. Now there are about 12 warriors ranging in age from seven to 14 — the oldest, who happens to be my son Tom.

“He’s a flier,” says Colin.

And he is. A year ago he had little interest in physical activity except flapping a belt wrapped around a coat-hanger. 

Now he races around the track at Irishtown Stadium.

It’s exhilarating. They’re doing something, at last.

It’s hard too. A boy refuses to get on to the starting line because, as he says, “I want to win. I never win anything”.

Hard to argue with that. While running, hurdling and jumping are great entry points to sport for autistic kids because they are simple, the social end of it can be very difficult for them.

There’s hardly a moment when they’re all succeeding. And then suddenly, magic. A line of children on either side of the track representing a huge assortment of shapes, sizes and levels of ability.

And they’re running a relay race. Every time a child passes a baton and sends another running off with a big grin on his face, the parents cheer.

David Geoghegan takes off
David Geoghegan takes off

For just a few moments they are taking part in a social activity and playing by the rules. The hope is that this experience might transfer a bit to the rest of their lives.

Some kids with autism make amazing athletes.

“They’re extremely driven,” says Colin. This fact is beginning to be recognised in the US. Michael Phelps, who won an Olympic gold medal for swimming, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition with many characteristics of autism. Marathon runner Mike Brannigan, who has autism, was brought to a special needs athletics club in Long Island and his parents watched in amazement as he took off like a rocket.

He ran the Marine Corps Marathon and came 22nd out of over 5,000 runners in 2009. He was 12.

But winning’s not the issue for most Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) kids.

Most kids with autism have multiple challenges and some are very disabled. For some, a running club is out of the question.

For others, it’s a fun way of working out their issues. We are only at the beginning of research into the impact of exercise on autism. In the US, Achilles International, a foundation dedicated to getting autistic kids into athletics, has just got major funding to carry out extensive research on the results.

Here in Ireland, Colin has started a conversation with researchers at Trinity College about measuring the impact of sport for autistic kids.

Meanwhile, parents are doing their own research and getting incredible results.

“Going to the Rainbow Warriors just means we have a much nicer evening,” says Joyce McDermott, mother of Jack, who is seven. “Jack’s much more likely to relax, listen to a story and go to sleep.”

The opportunity gap between Jack and his brothers was yawning as they play rugby and football. Jack doesn’t understand how to be part of a team but he has an athletic body and Joyce wanted him to make the most of it. He’s food-fussy like most autistic kids and Joyce didn’t want him having a lack of exercise as well as a poor diet.

He also does wall-climbing in UCD with the southside Dublin autistic activities

group Open Spectrum, and Joyce says he’s “like Spiderman.”

It’s frightening to think how many kids with autism and other disabilities aren’t getting the chance to take part in sport.

Colin is adamant that the mainstream sports clubs should cater more for kids with disabilities.

But meanwhile the Rainbow Warrior make dreams come true every Monday night as autistic kids pound around Irishtown Stadium.

The Rainbow Warriors can be joined by emailing Colin at


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