Josh Gabriel-Clarke was inspired to set up Scotland’s first autism-friendly rugby sessions by his own son – and is now helping to bring a community together.
The community project coordinator developed the free weekly sessions through the Strathmore Rugby Club Community Trust, funded by Direct Club Investment, sportscotland’s National Lottery club development fund.
Josh says: "I was previously working in mainstream rugby development but this is massively more rewarding than anything else I've done."
Josh, who has been with the Trust since July 2018, says the unique scheme was inspired by his eldest son Archie, 6, who has an autism diagnosis.
He says: "I looked at it as a parent and thought, ‘There’s an opportunity to do something really positive for children like Archie’. We wanted to further and really help these children flourish.
"So we’ve created social stories and picture exchange cards to help with communication and have sensory tents if the children need time away.
"We also partnered with autism organisations to specifically design the sessions and offer training courses for those involved, so all the coaches are trained in Makaton [language programme]."
Held at Strathmore Rugby Club in Forfar, Angus, Josh says the response has been "absolutely outstanding", with sessions booked out weeks in advance.
He says: "When you see how the kids are coming on, it’s brilliant. Some kids couldn’t integrate at all to start with, yet now they’re talking to the coaches and making eye contact. It’s not whether they can catch and pass a ball, it’s about social integration – and rugby has been the vehicle for that.
"It also means parents can get a bit of respite time, share stories and help each other out."
The autism-friendly sessions form part of a wide range of projects being run out of the club, including an academy that has recruited 55 pupils from local secondary schools and Strathmore Clan, a unified side where non-disabled adults play alongside those with disabilities.
DCI funding has been provided directly to clubs since 2013 as part of a large-scale distribution of funding from The National Lottery, which celebrates its 25th birthday in 2019.
Thanks to The National Lottery players, £30 million is invested in good causes across the UK each week, and sportscotland look to invest National Lottery funding in projects that strengthen our communities and help people enjoy the benefits of sport.
Strathmore have a strong volunteer workforce and close links with Scottish Rugby, Scotland Rugby League and the local community sports hub and Active Schools, which are also key areas of sportscotland investment, as well as individual schools and clubs.
Josh says close links have been key to the club’s success, explaining: "We’ve had great support from everyone, from the schools and health board to Active Schools, which has really driven things on.
"Everybody has bought into it and we’ve developed a sense of community among people who’d never had something in common previously – I think that’s been our biggest achievement."
DCI support has been key, with Josh explaining: "The funding has been invaluable and allowed the Trust to run these projects over the past year. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to bring these unique opportunities to the community for free."
Looking ahead, the Trust is now looking to continue to offer an invaluable service. Josh says: "We want to ensure that the Trust and the club are an available hub of activity for the local community – that’s the driver."