Not Everyone’s a Podium Finisher — And We Shouldn’t Need to Be

2021 was a grand year for the Singapore sports scene, with Paralympian Yip Pin Xiu defending her gold medal and badminton player Loh Kean Yew clinching the BWF World Championships title. But what are sports like for youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Ignite follows a team of graduating Republic Polytechnic SHL students to find out more about how we can make sports more inclusive for youth with special needs.

A Need for More Inclusive Sports for Youth with Special Needs

By Carman Chew

2021 was a grand year for the Singapore sports scene.

Ministers sang praise when swimmer Yip Pin Xiu defended her gold medal in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, media persons flocked to interview badminton player Loh Kean Yew when he became the first Singaporean to clinch the BWF World Championships title, and Singaporeans roared when the Lions went head to head with Indonesia in the last Suzuki Cup.

But only a handful were cheering when 15-year-old Ignatius successfully dribbled a soccer ball in a modified football drill.

Ignatius, 15, dribbling a soccer ball alongside student coaches, Muhammad
Nasrullah (left),  Muhammad Nurdanial (right), and mum, Christine Tay.

Ignatius was one of the 15 youths with autism who attended an inclusive sports workshop organised by a group of five Republic Polytechnic School of Sports, Health & Leisure (SHL) students on Jan 15.

The workshop was organised as part of the students’ final year project for the Diploma in Sports Coaching.

The three-hour program introduced a variety of sports to youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The six sports — namely football, volleyball, tennis, darts, badminton and basketball — were chosen to improve the youths’ fundamental movement skills. These skills, as team leader Mohamed Afiq explained, are “skills we use in our daily lives without us realizing it”.

David (left) receives a volleyball while student coach Tai Guo Xuan (right) cheers him on from the side.
The sports were chosen to improve fundamental movement skills like running, catching, hitting and kicking.

Families who attended the workshop mostly heard about the activity through the Friends of ASD Families chat group, a support group for parents of children with special needs. Others came from Saint Clare School.

“Even going to the playground sometimes feels a little stressful”

According to a 2016 study, it is estimated that 1 in 150 children in Singapore is on the autism spectrum, slightly higher than the global rate of incidence outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Yet, youth with autism still face much stigma in Singapore today.

As Ignatius’ mother, Ms Tay, shared:

“We always felt very alone — like society doesn’t accept Ignatius for who he is. He appears to be like a ‘normal’ person but has a hidden disability, so sometimes his behaviour might look unacceptable to others outside.”

“Sometimes the other children in public spaces might also be afraid of certain behaviours like when he flaps his arms or makes certain sounds due to his excitement.”

“We don’t really bring him out much for outdoor activity, so being in a support group and learning in a safe space like this actually helps us be not so afraid of trying.”

Student coach, Nur Amirah Fitrisiasih, plays a round of
modified volleyball with youth Aleena and mum.

Other parents expressed similar sentiments about the thoughtfulness of the event organisers.

Many appreciated that the event was held indoors, with nearby toilets and air-conditioning available. 

Parents were especially grateful for the air-conditioning since the warmer weather outdoors usually induces greater restlessness in those with ASD. One joked that it was also helpful for parents who acquiesce to living “more sedentary lifestyles”.

Parents Guoh Tjin Soon and Esther Song praised the student coaches as professional, skilful, and patient during the sports sessions.

When asked how his modified darts-throwing experience was, participant Sean Guoh simply nodded and said, “Good.”

The Guoh family, one of the 15 participating families at the workshop: 
Esther Song (top), Guoh Tjin Soon (right) and their son, Sean Guoh (middle)

While the workshop was a great bonding experience, some parents hoped for future sessions to include more members of the family, such as siblings and cousins.

Ms Tay told Ignite, “For parents of children with ASD, we don’t want the other siblings to feel neglected also.”

“Sports is not just exercise”

Seeing that many of such youth were cooped up at home with limited activities, the organising team of five Republic Polytechnic SHL students had decided to centre their final year project around these underprivileged communities.

Afiq explained, “The reason why we modified [these activities] is not that we look down on them, but it’s so that they can have more fun. For example, when using a real volleyball it can be quite painful, even for adults — so we changed it so that it’ll be less pain and more fun.”

“You’ll be surprised,” he continued. “I see some of them, they really can play sports. Previously when we did a trial run with junior coaches, some of us couldn’t even get the basketball in.”

Fellow group member Daniel Martens added, “Most important is for them to gain confidence and participate in sports activities because they can do it. It’s just that maybe they need some guidance on different ways in which they can participate.”

Student coaches Wong Shuting Valentia (middle) and Nurid’Dinie Ridzman (right) introduce participant
Nexter Ng to modified volleyball. The sports were modified to make them safer and more enjoyable for the youth.

Beyond being part of their academic pursuit, sports has also been an important part of the student coaches’ lives, developing skills that can be used in various contexts.

Daniel shared, “Sports has definitely helped my character, it’s [through] sports where I really went through my toughest moments and best moments. It can also give you life-long friendships, memories… and not just physical, but also mental strength.”

The organizing team for the inclusive sports workshop. Back row (left to right): Muhammad Nurdanial, Martens Daniel Jordan Rowsing. Front row (left to right): Nurid’Dinie, Mohamed Afiq and Puteri Dayana. [Photo credit: Republic Polytechnic]

“Awareness comes first, then they will find the purpose and serve”

After the workshop, participants also got to bring back the equipment with the help of the Temasek Trust’s oscar@sg fund. The fund supports ground-up initiatives responding to significant and urgent community needs in Singapore arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The equipment was complemented by a video playlist prepared by the student coaches. These are publicly available resources to guide parents on possible modified sports activities they can do with their children with ASD.

Student coaches pack the equipment in bags for participants to bring home.
Items included range from racket sports to ball sports, gymnastics items to dartboards.

The team’s supervisor and senior lecturer at SHL, Mr Harold Tse, acknowledged the limitations of this one-off program but was optimistic about future efforts.

“Due to the nature of the diploma, we can only provide a very broad perspective of what they can do and contribute to different segments of the population. There will still be learning and competency gaps.”

“But for some of them, they might have never interacted with people of special needs. Through this, they will know what are the things they can and need to learn after they graduate for the people in this community.”

Moving beyond shiny medals

When Sport Singapore launched Vision 2030 a decade ago, one of their key mandates was for sports in Singapore to go beyond winning medals. It also entailed community building, living healthier lifestyles, inter-agency collaboration, and creating more inclusive sports opportunities.

Yet, amidst last year’s podium finishing celebrations, some wins were also overshadowed by lamentations over cash award disparities between our local paralympic and Olympic athletes.

Ten years on, perhaps it’s time to revisit and expand our definition of what it means to be a ‘winner’, and more importantly, question whether we need to be winners at all.