A profile article on Panathlon, a UK charity that offers young people with special needs the opportunity to engage in competitive sport.
Children with autism have flourished in and out of the sports arena as a result of Panathlon competitions for students with disabilities and special educational needs.
Before Covid, more than 20,000 young people from more than 300 schools took part in Panathlon sports competitions for children of primary, middle and secondary age each year, which take place across England and Wales. Activities include multisport sports, swimming, soccer, boccia and bowling.
Panathlon competitions are strictly scheduled and structured, and designed to be accessible to children with sensory processing difficulties. Time and time again at Panathlon competitions, teachers and parents have reported that children with autism have found a sense of belonging in representing their school and engaged in social interactions, which they often struggle with at times. ‘other environments.
Students at Doucecroft School (a coeducational school specializing in children with autism and additional complex needs in Colchester, Essex) have been competing in Panathlon for several years.
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Their physical education teacher Andrea Griffiths says: âThe structure of Panathlon is perfect because the kids know exactly where they should be, what they are doing and what’s next. Knowing what to expect is crucial for children with autism.
âI can’t tell you how much the introduction of Panathlon changed the school. The Panathlon events have opened the eyes of our staff. They can see how happy the students are with the events and with their return to school.
âOur students find the change in their daily routines and unfamiliar surroundings very stressful and Panathlon events have taken them out of their comfort zone. We’re so proud of the way they handled this and played. “
Helping Children Overcome Anxiety
Panathlon creates a level playing field in which young people feel comfortable competing against others who are like them. Parents and teachers reported that the experience of representing their school has a positive ripple effect on participants, improving their physical and mental well-being, confidence and self-esteem.
Jack Greer, a 17-year-old student at Doucecroft, is one of the countless examples. He suffers from an autism spectrum disorder, global developmental delay, complex learning difficulties, sensory integration disorder, ADHD, Tourette, hyper-obility / loose ligaments, coordination difficulties and Genu valgum (knee kick) with a deformed foot, as well as exotropia, which affects his eyes.
In the past, Jack suffered from severe anxiety due to his sensory difficulties, triggered especially by noisy environments, which caused him to display difficult behavior.
Panathlon, however, helped him overcome some of his anxiety. He hated the screeching noises of his local pool, now, however, he embarks on swimming competitions (his highlight was meeting Tom Daley in the Panathlon swimming final in London and Essex at the London Aquatics Center 2012 ).
Outside of school, Panathlon gave Jack the confidence to participate fully in the local Boys’ Brigade, including their swim gala and the Highland Games. He also raised money for local charities by participating in the Rotary Club Swim Marathon, for which he received a special award.
Jack received the Jack Petchey Panathlon Foundation Award of Excellence for the London and Essex area in January. Her mother Barbara said, âMy heart is overflowing with pride. Jack has come such a long way.
âMy thanks go to Doucecroft School and Panathlon for encouraging them to try new experiences, for their passion for involving all children in sport and for creating opportunities to participate in competitions. It boosts their self-confidence, gives them the feeling of being part of a team and the pride of representing their school.
Matthew Key, a student at West Lea School in north London, admits his autism has helped make him “moody, angry and difficult” in physical education classes. But after getting his enthusiasm from trying out the range of Panathlon sports in an accessible and friendly environment, he is now incredibly active outside of school.
âThere is no doubt about it, Panathlon has given me a better future,â he said. “It allowed me to focus that negative energy on something positive instead of just having fun.”
He swims, plays football, canoe and joins the Finchley Amateur Boxing Club, where he was once joined by Anthony Joshua for a training session. âMy ultimate ambition is to get all the belts in the heavyweight division,â he said. “It was honestly Panathlon that kindled this fire in me.”
Another example of a student benefiting immensely from the environment that Panathlon offers is Jack Courtney from Welling in Kent. Jack is severely autistic, has gross and fine motor skills, and has tremendous anxiety when in crowds and in open spaces.
He watched videos on Panathlon’s YouTube channel before heading to the sprawling Copper Box Arena for the London 2019 multisport final to familiarize himself with the site and the activities. âHe was anxious in the building, but the wait was so minimal between each activity that he came out and participated really really well,â said his teacher at Hook Lane Elementary School Karrie Cheeseman.
âThe activities are so well designed for him to participate – he was in his element,â said Karrie. âMany of us have known him since he was in kindergarten and have witnessed his progress over the years. For him, being able to travel, compete, do things in a group, talk to adults and receive a medalâ¦ It’s incredible. We were extremely proud of him. We cried! “
The Panathlon swimming competitions were a huge success with autistic students in special and regular schools. Water stimulates children with sensory processing disorders and those on the autism spectrum, helping to engage some of the (statistically) more inactive groups of children. For some, Panathlon competitions marked their very first swimming experience.
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Ideas for sensory games
Wayne Brown, physical education teacher at Rosetta Primary School in Newham, east London, said: âWe haven’t had a chance to do swimming lessons with these guys, let alone competitions. The recreation centers do not provide lessons to autistic children because they need specialized providers. This is why Panathlon is so beneficial for our students. They wouldn’t be able to compete normally, but here the playing field is totally level.
Panathlon has had such an influence on physical education and sports provision at Sherwood Park School in Sutton for the past nine years that they have established a lunchtime âpanathlon clubâ for. practice the activities of multisport competitions, such as boccia, table cricket, the new -Age Kurling, and polybat.
âPanathlon has really enriched and improved our curriculum,â said former Sherwood Park deputy director Sue Fergusson. âIt had a really major impact on our school and thanks to our Panathlon club, this impact lasts throughout the school year.
âIt helps kids know what they’re going to do when they get to a competition and understand the rules, which is especially helpful for people with autism. Kids love it and talk about it all the time. This has allowed us to give them more opportunities than they have ever had before.
A level playing field for autistic competitors
These level playing fields are crucial for competitors with autism, and that is why Ryan Jones, deputy principal of Treetops School in Essex (a special school for children with learning disabilities, including severe autism ), joined us.
âThere are many sporting opportunities for children with physical disabilities, but much less for those with learning disabilities. When I stumbled upon Panathlon, I was delighted that there was an organization offering these opportunities. It was a perfect match.
âYou want kids to be able to access something and compete in a friendly environment that matches their own level of ability, whether they win or lose. As long as they are able to feel valued and contribute positively to the team. This is precisely what Panathlon offers.
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