In the city of Hefei, there is a special football team: 22 players aged between 8 and 14 years old 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 football 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,” his mother Luo Hongyan said, adding that Aoao ran away once he saw people approaching him at the very beginning. Now he can interact with strangers and even make eye contact.
Aoao is among the 22 children with autism of the football team “Star Dream,” which was established in Hefei, capital of east China’s Anhui Province, 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 football,” Zhan Xinping, coach and co-founder of the football team, said on World Autism Awareness Day on Tuesday.
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 to cure autism, but more and more civil forces are trying to help children integrate into society in various ways such as football.
Zhan recalled that most children had no concept of “football” 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.”
Unable to understand proper football techniques independently, each child is assisted by a volunteer. After hundreds of repetitions, they finally learned that football is a game played with their feet.
Then came the more difficult skills such as dribbling and shooting. Each skill requires countless practice and repetition.
“Football requires rules and cooperation, which autistic children lack,” Zhan said. “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, admitted 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 at a place for 10 minutes.”
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 said.
Children with autism in the football team all look forward to Saturday. At the age of 12, Tiantian (pseudonym) carefully marks the day on his calendar, and Aoao will prepare his equipment well in advance.
For the parents, the day provides not only a short break of relief but also hope.
“I’m under big pressure. Talking to other parents can relieve my mood,” Luo said. “Although children are not yet able to communicate with others properly, football seems to offer a possibility.”
Li Quanzhi, co-founder of the football team and founder of Hefei Autism Rehabilitation Association, said treatment for autism requires sustained and lifelong intervention.
“The football team is an attempt to give these children a sense of joy and safety, to get them out of their families and into society,” Li said. “But there is still a long way to go.”