Panathlon has ended many years of “frustration” at Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn in North Wales that the needs of its pupils with autism weren’t being met in PE and sport.
Plas Brondyffryn, a specialist centre for autism in Denbigh, first engaged with Panathlon four years ago. Since then, its pupils have competed in many of our multisport, new-age kurling, boccia and 10-pin bowling competitions, giving pupils a priceless experience of representing their school and all the benefits of competitive sport.
It’s a stark contrast to external provision pupils experienced previously, which left staff and pupils underwhelmed and unfulfilled.
Teacher Katie Jones, who is leaving the school at the end of term after 26 years, recalls: “I’ve been here a long time and it was so frustrating when there was nothing tailored for our pupils with autism.
“Our local disability officer came in with games that had been designed for pupils in wheelchairs, blind or visually impaired or deaf students.
“We got people in to do tag rugby or cricket, but they never really ‘got’ our pupils. Someone even once said to us, ‘There’s no category in the Special Olympics for autism!” As if that was an excuse for not developing any activities for autistic children.
“So when we went to the first Panathlon, we were blown away!”
Having experienced provision that wasn’t properly targeted at their pupils’ needs, Katie says Panathlon hit the bullseye straight away.
“At Panathlon, they just ‘get it,’” she says. “They understand the children’s capabilities and limitations. Even though it’s for children with all sorts of additional needs, it’s so bespoke as well. It’s so well-tailored for them.
“It’s like a vibe. It’s a safe space. The activities and equipment are all able to be adapted and it’s so well organised. It’s also really nice to meet children from other special schools in the area, because then our children don’t see themselves as any different.”
Inspired by the pupils’ enjoyment at Panathlon events, school staff have bought the same equipment, such as basketball hoops and boccia sets, to use in PE lessons.
“What struck me was how the equipment is simple but can be used in so many different ways,” said Katie. “I picked up so many new ideas to try back in school.”
Of all the positive benefits, Katie highlights one in particular which she notices whenever pupils return from a competition.
“The main thing is the effect it has on their wellbeing,” she says. “They come away from Panathlons feeling so proud of themselves. They have such a sense of pride and achievement.
“They have tried an activity they’ve never done before but they didn’t stress about it. They come away thinking, ‘I tried something new and it was OK.’
“Panathlon has given them a safe, non judgemental space to be themselves.”