The Highland Soccer Stars is a soccer/exercise program specifically developed for kids on the Asperger’s and PDD/NOS autism spectrum. The program is operated with the support of the Highland Youth Soccer Club, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) qualified soccer club based in Gloucester Township, New Jersey. The Soccer Stars program focuses on exercise, gross motor skills, motor planning, team work, social skills and most importantly ‑ having fun. We run a lot of soccer related drills and set up exercises that are designed to address the specific needs of the kids. The majority of the players lack core strength, coordination and the confidence to join in organized sports. The goal of our program is to improve their conditioning, teach them some basic skills and to minimize the stress that they experience in engaging in these types of activities. Social skills and core strength building exercises are incorporated into a format focusing primarily on the game of soccer, but which also includes several sessions exploring other sports such as basketball, wiffleball, kickball, frisbee and football. The sessions involve a lot of running and motor planning skills. The kids range in age from 8 years old to 21 years old, and there are both boys and girls. All of the kids have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, high functioning autism or PDD/NOS on the autism spectrum.
The Highland Soccer Stars program was created in 2005 by Bob Cooper, a nationally licensed soccer coach and father of two autistic children. Bob has coached several travel and intramural teams for the Highland Youth Soccer Club since 1997. After discovering that there were no soccer programs that were skill appropriate, rather than age appropriate, for his youngest son who was autistic, Bob decided to create his own. Starting with a group of six kids in the first year, the program has now expanded to almost 30 children and runs from September through May. All of the training is provided by volunteers, including Assistant Director Tom Storer, a former Vice Principal at Highland High School, and 6-8 high school student volunteers and players from HYSC soccer teams. The student volunteers help to demonstrate the exercises and drills and work with the children to improve their confidence and self esteem. They help each of the kids to know that someone is paying attention to them and that they are interested in their success. This helps the students to feel accepted despite their individual issues. The goal is for the kids to have fun and to forget for a few moments how hard they have to work.
The program runs every Tuesday night, unless the school is closed, in the gym of the James W. Lilley Elementary School on 1275 Williamstown Rd. in Sicklerville. The sessions run from 7:00pm to approximately 9:00pm. The gym space for the program was secured through the Highland Soccer Club and by Gloucester Township Public Schools. HYSC registers the children for free in their intramural program which provides insurance coverage. The South Jersey Soccer League generously provides trophies each year for the kids. Rutgers-Camden also provides a free gift for the kids at their mid year December celebration. There is no cost for the program and the kids do not need to bring anything to practice except sneakers.
The program rapidly fills up each year and there is usually a waiting list to participate. If you would like more information, please contact the Director of the Program, Bob Cooper at [email protected].