By Keith Loria
Thanks to a nonprofit organization dedicated to children unable to play typical recreational soccer, Oregon kids with autism are learning the joys of the sport.
Often times, children with autism are left on the sidelines to watch the action, but an innovative soccer league is changing that, giving children with special needs the chance to play and be cheered on by family and peers.
TOPSoccer is a community-based training and team placement program for players 4 years and older with mental and/or physical disabilities. In Oregon City, Three Rivers Soccer operates under the TOPSoccer umbrella, founded by Cory and Tammie Moore. Ten years ago, the Moores were simply looking for a soccer program for their son to play in.
“Our son Alex was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at the age of 2 ½. We knew early on that Alex would be different from his brother and sister, but we didn’t want his active options to be limited due to the disability,” Cory says. “For a good year, we searched to find a program that would work for our son. To our surprise, in 2005, there just weren’t any options.”
Borrowing from Field of Dreams’ mantra of “if you build it, they will come,” the couple filed paperwork to become a 501(c)(3). They became the first Oregon soccer program solely dedicated to kids who were unable to play recreational soccer due to physical or mental disabilities. About 70 percent of the Three Rivers league has ASD.
“I guess you can say the genesis stemmed from the love for our son,” Tammie adds.
The Moore’s research found that soccer is really a game for all ages and began reaching out to other children like their son.
“You just have to move and kick a ball, and kicking doesn’t always mean with your feet either. We have found that for kids with autism, soccer provides an outlet that allows them to be individuals, as well as branch out of their comfort zone to connect with people,” Cory says. “Soccer is a great game that allows you to follow certain rules that everyone plays by. The motor movement that soccer brings is also proving to help children with autism with coordination, gross motor control as well as social development.”
When Three Rivers Soccer first began, 30 children were enrolled with only the Moores running it. Today, it has more than 60 kids and nearly 40 steady high school volunteers. “We have a board of nine amazing volunteers that help run the program behind the scenes as well,” Cory says.
“We have wanted to keep it manageable and have not tried to promote it in a serious fashion. Our program is word-of-mouth and we do not turn anyone away.”
Each September, kids in the program start playing at the Oregon Indoor Soccer Center every Saturday afternoon. The center’s owner not only supports the program but donates the time for the facilities.
“We run two one-hour sessions that are really designed and geared to help focus on what the child does well—their abilities, not the disability,” Cory says. “Early on in setting up our club we discovered that our players have a very wide range of abilities. We have players that are ready to play a really fun and fast pace game of soccer, and we have players that just need a little more assistance.”
Early on, the decision was made to offer two groups that could really focus on the player’s ability rather than age.
“We really lean on parents/guardians, who know them the best, to determine what group they feel best supports their player,” Tammie says. “Players are always welcome to play in both sessions as well, or switch at any time.”
The Bobcats session is designed for players who are new to soccer and need a little more assistance, or who just want a more structured program. In this group, each player has a “buddy” for the day, usually high school volunteers. There is also focus on one-on-one development.
“We like to think of this session as taking everything we learned from some of the best occupational therapists and combining it with a soccer ball,” Cory says. “During this session, we play a lot of fun socialization games, such as body soccer, various skill drills, Red Light/Green Light and Duck, Duck Goose. We also have a couple parachutes we will pull out.”
Those playing for the Cougars are a little higher functioning and require a buddy because they play a very quick back-and-forth game of soccer.
“These sessions really focus on the ‘play and have fun aspect’ and a little less on the full ‘rules,’” Tammie says. “Each session starts with some sort of skill drill, and then after about 15 minutes, they will play a full field game.”
Both team names are tied back to Alex, who loves the Lion King and has carried a stuffed animal of Nala around for years.
Over the years, Cory has seen the players learn more than just soccer when they participate, and has noticed a big change in Alex as well.
“They learn how to use their voice, develop relationships with people outside their normal day-to-day of school and home,” he says. “They learn to follow directions, take turns, build on their gross motor abilities and most of all, how to have fun and make a friend. Soccer is the foundation and tool to make all this happen.”
Players who join Three Rivers Soccer league receive their own uniform to keep—and everyone agrees that once you see the players in that uniform, something magical happens.
“There is a pride that can’t be described in words. They are so very proud to be off the sidelines and now a part of something that is focusing on what they can do,” Cory says. “We normally don’t just get mom and dad to come to the game day, you will most of the time see grandma, grandpa, uncles, aunts, cousins and even a few family friends coming to cheer the player on. This builds even more confidence and pride in the child.”
For more information on the program, visit Three Rivers Soccer online.