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Calming down football

Calming down football

The atmosphere at a football match can be frenzied – too frenzied for people with autism. Now some clubs are finding ways to calm things down.


Transcript

Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world of football. 

Today… how can football be more welcoming to people with disabilities?

***

Close your eyes for a minute and think back to the best atmosphere you’ve ever experienced at a football match…

The deafening roar of the crowd… being jam-packed with thousands of others all screaming for the same thing… the beauty of an evening under the floodlights. 

“Trippier. Sterling making a dart. Walker in there too. Might come to Luke Shaw!”

ITV Sport

Watching on TV is great but can it compare with being there?  Not for many of us. 

But what if you have autism or another disability? 

The noise, crowds and bright lights are the very things that can trigger not just excitement but overwhelming distress. 

A live football match might be the last place to go to. 

Until, that is, people like Jon Helliwell made a difference.  Jon is a Disability Liaison Officer with Sheffield United.  His job?  To make football more accessible to people who are marginalised by society. 

You see, attitudes are changing. Just because the environment at a football match is difficult for a person with autism, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be there.  It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want to see their heroes in the flesh – just like anybody else. 

So what is being done for them?

Well, the picture is patchy but some clubs – like Sheffield Utd – are making huge strides in the right direction.

Jon has a background in working with vulnerable people.  He was appointed as Fan Engagement Lead at Sheffield United three and a half years ago, before moving to his current position six months ago.

Working alongside the Disabled Supporters Group, he’s been able to lobby for a sensory room for those with additional needs. 

It has meant that Sheffield United has joined a growing number of football clubs such as Sunderland, Chelsea, Arsenal and Watford, who have installed sensory rooms. 

At Sheffield United, this calm, safe space is located in the corner of the family stand. It’s a small, soundproof room with a big window and a magnificent view of the pitch. It holds five supporters, plus a carer for each one. 

There’s dim lighting, a bubble corner and tactile panels with different shapes and textures.

Jon showed me around the newly-installed room.

“This is our kind of breakaway den. If they become a little bit overwhelmed and they want to take a little bit of a time out they can go into the den, we’ve got like a special weighted blanket in there, which is soft, a little bit heavier, all that kind of touchy feely kind of thing and then obviously we’ve got some UV lighting and some nice little things in there for them to play with.”

Jon Helliwell

The sensory room is an ideal place for those with autism.  The club is now getting enquiries from schools and community groups about hiring the room during the week. 

But on matchday, the idea is to help gradually acclimatise those with additional needs to live football. That’s where the room is different to others you’d find in the community.

“The whole idea of the sensory room is for them to come to the match er erm in a nice, safe space, but the whole emphasis is to help and encourage them to go and watch the match ‘normally’ so to speak. Outside in the football environment.” 

Jon Helliwell

And the response to the sensory room at Sheffield United proves that this is no box-ticking exercise. Jon says that the room was booked up until after Christmas only two weeks from the launch date. 

The demand hugely outweighs the availability for the sensory room. Surely this proves that other clubs should follow suit.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And that’s from people both with and without additional needs. 

“Yeah, as I said, it couldn’t have been much better really. We had a family come in a couple of weeks ago now, a family of four, they had two, two boys who have both got autism and it’s one of the first times they’ve been able to attend a football match. And for a family to be able to  have that opportunity to come and not have to worry about their children struggling in the stands, or having to leave early or anything like that… they just found it an absolute invaluable asset.”

Jon Helliwell

With the room so popular, there are plans to see if some of those with autism might transfer to the stands if properly supported by equipping them with ear defenders and fidget spinners. 

The club shop is also responding. Following the lead of many supermarkets, it provides an autism hour with low lighting, less noise and more space. 

And there’s more: Jon says they are improving the toilets and working with partners to provide commentary for the hard of hearing. 

Now, he says, these kinds of adaptations are requirements, not luxuries. 

With increasing awareness generally of the needs of people with autism and other disabilities, it’s hard to argue. 

It’s inevitable that going to a live football match is more difficult for some than others. But clubs like Sheffield United are looking beyond the label of disability to make football more accessible.

Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Imy Harper.