National footballer Ernie Sontaril sets up sports and arts initiative for youth with autism

Ernie Sontaril observed there were few avenues for children with autism to develop interest in sports.
Ernie Sontaril observed there were few avenues for children with autism to develop interest in sports.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - Having worked in the special education sector as a physical education instructor to students with autism for over four years, Ernie Sontaril knows that many of them had the potential to excel and compete in sports.

But she observed that there were few avenues for children with autism to develop their interest in sports.

The lack of structured enrichment programmes with properly trained coaches and instructors resulted in many eventually dropping out of such classes.

That was when the national footballer, who is the highest-capped women's footballer with 40 appearances for the Lionesses, had the idea for Singa Champs, an initiative to provide sports and arts training to youth with autism.

"These kids have potential but we just need to fine-tune certain things and reach out to them to see their abilities. I've taught them different sports and they're actually able to do it, so I thought why not have a sports programmes for that," said the 32-year-old, who is also a football coach.

Siti Aisyah Rahmat, a fellow special education teacher who is an instructor in the programme, added: "A lot of them have potential in sports, music and arts and in an environment where they're not distressed, it's easy for them to work and show their talent. If we can create that environment for them, we can give proper training for them to nurture their skills and develop it further."

Singa Champs has programmes for sports such as football, basketball and archery.

They also have lessons for art and crafts as well as drama and music.

To create a conducive environment for Singa Champ sessions, all instructors and coaches in charge of the various classes have been trained and equipped with the relevant knowledge to coach youth with autism.

Establishing routines and laying out what to expect from each session will also be a key part of the programme as children with autism find a sense of stability in routine, while instructors will also provide step-by-step guides for participants.

There will be a separate area for students who experience a meltdown to calm down before rejoining the class.

Iryana Amin, who registered her nine-year-old son Ruzaiman for the football programme, feels that it is crucial to have such an initiative.

Although Ruzaiman had tried various sports in school, Iryana, 42, never signed him up for any external programmes because she was worried that they were not suitable for him.

The educarer said: "I wanted to expose him to other sports. It's important to have a programme like Singa Champs because it's much better for kids with autism, there's a peace of mind to let them go for the activities."

Apart from giving them the opportunity to try out these activities, Ernie feels that the programme is also a chance to help them develop soft skills.

She said: "With sports, they'll learn how to interact with friends through things like asking for the ball and even cheering for their friends."

Registration for classes have begun and sessions will start from March 1. Visit Singa Champ's website for more information.