Rugby program kicking goals for local kids with sensory issues

Rugby program kicking goals for local kids with sensory issues

Tom Onions (Sense Rugby), Western Force’s Sifa Amona, Harry Hooper, and Angus Wagner, with Austin Ryan (middle).

Local boy Austin Ryan is just 10. He can’t talk and struggles to make friends. But since joining an inclusive rugby team, it’s led to significant improvements in his language skills, coordination, balance and helped regulate his emotions.

Austin has been part of Sense Rugby for four years – a sport-themed occupational therapy program held in Harrisdale.

Austin is one of 17 kids benefitting from the local program.

Austin’s mother, Kate Ryan, said it’s the only activity he willingly gets dressed to go to without being nagged.

“The hardest thing for kids with disabilities is not being included,” says Kate.

“His favourite activity is crashing into the tackle bags.

“Families often don’t realise that children with disability can develop core strength and motor skills through sport and the sensory input from activities has a really good calming effect on the kids.”

Sense Rugby was founded in 2015 by paediatric occupational therapist, Carlien Parahi and Australian Rugby Sevens Olympian Jesse Parahi. It gives children with autism, ADHD, sensory or anxiety challenges, the opportunity to play rugby and experience being part of a team.

Until joining the program, Austin had no language, poor co-ordination and struggled to catch balls.

Through the program, coaches and occupational therapists have worked on Austin’s hand-eye coordination and balance and he can now jump with two feet and he enjoys running.

“For the first time in his life, he feels a valued member of a team,” Kate said.

“To see his enthusiasm shared with the kids when singing the chant at the end of training makes me quite emotional because he’s come so far because of what this program has done for Austin, and us as a family.”

Milly Ryan, Western Force’s Sifa Amona, and Austin Ryan.

She says the repetitive and predictable nature of the program has given Austin confidence and where he would normally feel anxious, he feels safe.

Kate Keisler is the founder and director of Piara Waters-based therapy and support services provider, Calm and Connected, and has run the program in Perth for eight years.  She said children with sensory processing challenges find it difficult to be part of a team and often get excluded.

“The high intensity heavy drill work helps children with their attention and engagement so they enjoy the activities associated with learning to play the game,” she said.

“Our focus is to create a positive social experience for them.”

The program is led by experienced occupational therapists and rugby coaches and Ms Keisler says it’s therapy without the children realising it.

“The program is about sensory activities to help children organise their sensory input,” she said.

“Sports that have firm predictable tactile pressure work well for children with sensory needs.”

Ms Keisler says the program calms and organises the nervous system so children listen, engage and focus on instructions and that calmness flows into their home life so family time is less intense.

A special school holiday clinic is being run on April 12 at UWA Sports Park McGillivray Oval from 8.30 – 10am for ages 6-9-year-olds, and from 10.30 – 12pm for ages 10-14-year-olds. To book, visit