National footballer Ernie to start sports classes for autistic kids
Having worked as an educator of special needs children since 2018, the national women's team's most-capped footballer Ernie Sontaril felt that there was no platform for these kids to progress in sport.
So the 32-year-old teacher and football coach decided to fill that gap herself by creating Singa Champs.
Singa Champs, which will begin its first class next month, offers programmes in football, basketball, multi-sport, arts and crafts as well as music and drama for children aged four to 16 with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Classes start from $55 per session.
Ernie told The New Paper: "Working in the special education sector, we realised that there's no other platform for children with autism in Singapore to progress in a sport or art that they might have potential in.
"Other programmes in Singapore, probably they will be inclusive in accepting special needs students."
She added that such inclusive programmes may not adopt specialised structures and processes for children with autism.
"When there's not enough support for them, that's when there are a lot of issues in their development and it might actually be an impediment to their progress," said Ernie, who has an Autism Exercise Specialist certificate from the American College of Sports Medicine.
She said that Singa Champs' programmes will create autism-friendly environments, adding that all its nine coaches have experience with special needs children.
"In terms of providing an environment that is appropriate for these children, a lot of it is physical structure," said Ernie, who played for Japanese then-second-tier side Speranza Osaka-Takatsuki in 2014 and has 40 caps for the national team.
"So simple things like having designated areas to store their bags, teaching them the routines of the different areas and making everything very clear and explicit...
"For children with autism, they work well with routines and when things are in place.
"We also plan to provide a calming-down area, a rest area, because even with such an environment in place, that is helpful for them... they might still get distressed. There are things that we might not be able to control.
"But what we can do is prepare an area that they can calm themselves down, de-escalate. That's when we can also put in the self-management process that is important for them to learn how to cope."
Ernie has no shortage of coaching experience, imparting the finer points of football at national age-group level, schools and academies for around 17 years, in addition to turning out for the Lionesses and Lion City Sailors.
Explaining how she marries her coaching background and her training with special needs children, she said: "Let's say when it comes to dribbling the ball... we put red tape at the part of the shoe that you would use for dribbling, so they will know that when you dribble the ball, you will use that part."
Iryana Amin, 42, has signed up her son Muhamad Ruzaiman Rosli, nine, for Singa Champs' football programme because he feels comfortable with Ernie, who taught him physical education at school for two years.
She said: "I want to expose him to more of the activities normal children do... He feels comfortable with Ms Ernie, and that is the most important thing for children with autism."