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Young soccer team's battle against autism

Xinhua | Updated: 2019-04-10 09:07

In the city of Hefei, East China's Anhui province, there is a special soccer team: 22 players aged between 8 and 14 with no fixed positions, and no pressure to win.

The members have just one thing in common-they are all children with autism, which is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social interactions, and by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior.

Dressed in a fluorescent soccer jersey, Aoao (pseudonym), 11, was running around the pitch, kicking a soccer ball with a volunteer he met for the first time. For many children, this is quite common, but for Aoao, who has autism, it's a big step forward.

"I was very excited," says his mother Luo Hongyan, adding that Aoao used to run away when he saw people approaching him. But now he can interact with strangers and even make eye contact.

Aoao is among the 22 children with autism who are part of the soccer team named Star Dream, which was set up in Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui, in April 2018.

"We're not trying to turn these children into professional players. We just want to expose them to the outside world and make them communicate more with people through soccer," says Zhan Xinping, coach and co-founder of the soccer team.

The team provides free professional coaches, venues and equipment for autistic children for an hour and a half every Saturday.

Autism affects at least 10 million people in China including more than 2 million children, according to an industry report released in 2015.

No effective treatment has been found for autism, but civil society groups are trying to help children integrate into society in various ways such as through soccer.

Zhan says that most children had no concept of soccer before joining the team. "They carried the soccer ball in their hands and ran around the field like runaway ponies. Instructions and rules didn't work for them."

Since they are unable to understand soccer rules, each child is assisted by a volunteer. And after much repetition, they finally learn that it's a game played with the feet.

Then came the more difficult skills such as dribbling and shooting. So, each skill requires countless practice sessions and repetition.

"Soccer requires rules and cooperation, which autistic children lack," says Zhan. "But after repeated verbal support and demonstrations by coaches and volunteers, the children got better and better."

Wang Shuyun, a volunteer from Hefei University of Technology, says that it was difficult to communicate with the group at first.

"They didn't respond to me. Some kids talked to themselves or stood staring for 10 minutes," Wang says.

But he didn't give up, taking the initiative to talk to them and striving to enter their world.

During the last session, a girl grabbed his hand and whispered a song in his ear.

"Even though I couldn't understand what she was singing about, I felt happy that she was willing to open a small window of her world to me," he says.

The children in the soccer team all look forward to Saturdays.

Tiantian (pseudonym), 12, carefully marks the day on his calendar, and Aoao prepares his equipment well in advance.

For the parents, the day provides not only a short break but also hope.

"I'm under a lot of pressure. Talking to the other parents improves my mood," says Luo.

"Although the children are not yet able to communicate with others properly, soccer seems to offer a possibility."

Li Quanzhi, the co-founder of the soccer team and founder of the Hefei Autism Rehabilitation Association, says treatment for autism requires sustained and lifelong intervention.

"The soccer team is an attempt to give these children a sense of joy and safety, to get them out of their families and into society," says Li. "But there is still a long way to go."

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