Last September, Saracens launched a free skills session for severely autistic 16 to 24-year-olds at Allianz Park Stadium, in Greenlands Lane, Mill Hill. Every Monday, a group of volunteers give up their time to make sure the children and teenagers - and their parents - have an hour's respite from their challenging lives. Reporter Anna Slater headed down to take part.
I’ll admit that the prospect of spending an evening playing sports was a daunting one: as a child, I was more into Barbies and ballerinas than I was badminton and basketball.
But after hearing about a fantastic autistic sports project at Allianz Park, I dusted off my old tracksuit bottoms and headed down to see first-hand what all the buzz is about.
From the moment I walked into the sports hall, it became obvious this isn’t your bog standard club.
For many of the children, it’s one of the first places they’ve ever felt they can fit in, make friends, and be themselves.
Sessions start with a parachute huddle to ease them into the activities, before they split off into groups to play a series of interactive sports.
Within seconds of walking into the room, a bright and bubbly 17-year-old came leaping towards me.
“I’m Mark!” He said, before holding out his hand to give me a high five. He then hands me a rugby ball, before challenging me to a game of catch.
During the game, the chirpy teenager wastes no time in telling me how much he loves coming here every Monday, how many friends he’s made. His enthusiasm has won me over.
Nineteen-year-old volunteer Luke Stack, an apprentice at the stadium, tells me: “It’s invaluable, it gives so much to these children.
“For some of them, coming out to play sports can be a big step, but they’re all so at ease here.”
Another volunteer, Ross, added: “After they’ve finished school, most of these children have no activities available for them. But coming to a place like this makes the world of difference.”
Next, I met teenager Peter Looker-Biddle. He does not speak, but he gently took my hand and with a big grin on his face, showed me how to throw beanbags into coloured hoops.
He then eagerly grabbed a large hoola-hoop and we began playing catch with Ross, tossing it higher and higher into the air.
His carer, Danny, told me: “He can sometimes get agitated, but this is a calming influence on him. Coming here has given him a sense of belonging.”
Mother Giselle Akalin is the brains behind the scheme. She launched it after her son, Kubilay, 16, was verbally abused by builders last year.
She contacted Owain Davies at the stadium - and as the pair say - the rest is history.
“I can’t praise enough what these volunteers do for my son. He’s made friends here, he’s accepted, and I trust the volunteers to keep him safe.”
When I head upstairs to speak to some of the parents, I realise it’s so much more than what it’s billed as.
It’s a place for them to seek respite from their challenging daily lives. Here, they can laugh about the good times and cry about the bad times with people who go through it too.
All the while, they are safe in the knowledge their children are being cared for, and most important of all, are happy.
Before I left, the stadium’s fundraising manager Bethany Kinsella offered a few extra words of praise for the scheme.
“It can be challenging, but every second is worth it. When you see how much they love it here, and how happy they all are, it makes your heart melt.”
The scheme is open for 16 to 24-year-olds who are severely autistic. For more information, e-mail Owain Davies on OwainDavies@Saracens.net.