Connor Fenn’s resilience and “remarkable progress” in PE, overcoming many hurdles on the way, have earned him Panathlon’s Essex Woodland Group Primary Special Recognition award.

Throughout many difficulties, the nine-year-old has discovered a love of PE and sport through the dedication and patience of staff at Doucecroft School, and also through his engagement with Panathlon.

Connor’s autism meant he was reluctant to interact with others and had regular ‘meltdowns’ when faced with things that made him uncomfortable and anxious.

Before joining Doucecroft in September 2018, Connor had never joined in with PE. He hated getting changed, found the noisy environment unsettling and couldn’t cope with sharing equipment or any kind of competition.

Since switching schools and being introduced to Panathlon by Doucecroft’s Sports Coach, Andrea Griffiths, Connor has found confidence, friendships and a sense of belonging.

“I believe if it were not for Connor attending the Panathlons, he would not have come on as far in PE as he has done. Being part of our team has given him so much belief in himself,” says Andrea.

Connor’s mum Cara added: “He is now better able to manage his behaviour. He has come so far, it’s just unbelievable. I don’t even think I can put into words how proud I am. He is the best!”

It’s been a long journey since Connor first arrived at the school. He tried to run away, was regularly extremely upset, refused to engage with PE and became distressed regularly.

Andrea takes up the story: “I took the equipment into Connor’s classroom and he would just sit watching. After a few weeks, he picked up a beanbag and threw it towards a target. Everyone cheered and Connor smiled! It was a bit of a breakthrough.

“One sunny day, we set up a few activities like a mini Panathlon and all of Key Stage 2 came outside and worked in groups. Connor found the noise a little too much, but he did put his ear defenders on and he completed his first every full PE lesson.”

From there, Connor was persuaded to attend a trampolining session (although meltdowns over sharing the trampoline and getting changed were regular occurrences at first). The next stage was his first external Panathlon event.

“We consulted with his mum, showed him a video of what the hall would look like and took an extra car in case he wanted to head straight back to school,” remembers Andrea. “When we arrived, he was very unsure due to the crowds and noise, but we gave him time to adjust, reassured him, and he joined his team-mates.

“At the end he sat in his group and waited for his medal. His face lit up and he could not wait to return back to school to school show everyone.”

Since that day, Connor has participated in Panathlon multi-sports and bowling competitions alongside pupils from nearby Southview School. Andrea says: “All we could hear was Connor cheering everyone on. It was the making of him. There was no stopping him now. Seeing Connor smiling, laughing and having fun with his peers in PE activities that he was never included in before was amazing.

“It’s given Connor 100% more confidence. Setting up PE lessons in our barn like in a Panathlon competition was important. It showed him what to expect and that prompted him to make that decision that he would come.

“Panathlon’s structure is perfect because they know exactly where they should be, what they’re doing and what’s coming next. It doesn’t matter what event we take them to, they know what to expect, which is crucial for autistic children. Connor has really, really enjoyed it, has met new friends and got involved in a whole new range of sports.”

He has since attended swimming lessons, a tag rugby tournament with another school and an inter-school sports day at RAF Mildenhall. Whereas taking turns and considering others’ feelings was a massive challenge for Connor, he has now, on the whole, learned not to resort to ‘meltdowns’ when things don’t go as he’d wish.

Doucecroft Head Teacher, Louise Parkinson, said: “I’d like to say a big thank you to Panathlon for allowing our young people to be able to experience these new activities and push them out of their comfort zones. It does mean an awful lot to them.

“Watching their peers achieve success and win trophies has a big influence on some of our other pupils. It makes them want to try harder themselves, not just in sport but in other aspects of their learning. It is really important to us at Doucecroft that we’re able to be part of Panathlon. It means a lot.”

Head of Year, Kuben Reddy, added: “For us it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of the job, seeing young people joining Doucecroft School and making the kind of progress that Connor has made.

“Panathlon has been nothing but positive for the school. It has given our kids a platform to extend their learning, opportunities to participate in new activities, to enjoy and test themselves, see other settings and form relationships. These are all amazing learning opportunities and experiences for a young person.”