CAFE is proud to stand alongside partners and like-minded peers in celebrating World Autism Acceptance Week 2024.

Autism is a form of neurodiversity, which are non-visible disabilities that people are born with, and can effect the way they process information and engage with other people. It is currently unknown what can cause autism.

There is no one universal experience of being autistic. In previous years it has been described as a ‘spectrum,’ ranging from those who function at different levels and different symptoms that impact their day to day life. While some people can work or live independently with reasonable adjustments, others may need more support. It is important that society offers this variety in support to meet every person’s requirements effectively, whether they can live independently or not.

Autism and other neurodivergent conditions are only beginning to receive more attention, research and acceptance in society. This is partly because they are non-visible, so are harder to identify or ‘spot’ than visible disabilities. While in 2023, 15% to 20% of the population were believed to be neurodivergent in general, many people go their entire lives without being diagnosed.

Particularly for women, autism is often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed as mental health issues. This can be because the symptoms are different to symptoms many men experience, the pressure to ‘mask’ more in society and hide their struggles, and not being believed when coming forward about their experiences.

Autism and neurodivergence can also have different effects on each person. While symptoms can vary depending on the person, and the impact it has on their own day to day life. However, as mentioned, ‘masking’ is common. This is when autistic people deliberately act in ways that assimilate them more into society and ignore their symptoms or discomfort. For example, being talkative at school or work to meet expectations. 

There are a range of support services that football stadiums and clubs can administer to make the matchday experience more accessible for fans with autism.

The most popular is sensory rooms. These have been introduced in numerous stadiums including, most recently at FC Porto. Sensory rooms are typically rooms which are decorated and organised specifically to produce a calming environment for neurodivergent people who may become overwhelmed or overstimulated in their seats during the match. This can be due to shouting, too many people around them, or too much happening overall.

Sensory rooms usually have a limit regarding how many people can use them at one time, including companions for the disabled fans. They will have little to no music (if there is music, it will be relaxing), and usually elements that can calm the senses such as interactive lights or games, soft materials to touch, and little interference from people outside. This allows for fans who need a break from the general seating area to still watch the game in person, and ensure they are calm and feel safe. These rooms have become so popular that there is often a waiting list so everyone can have a chance at experiencing it.

Other ways to support sensory overstimulation can be through using ear defenders, which can potentially allow the individual to remain seated in the general section but can block additional noise and allow them to focus on the game.

Advance additional information can also help fans with autism to plan their day effectively. Routines and information knowledge are a large part of living with autism for many people, so providing these details beforehand can allow them to plan around their routines and to ease any anxiety that may arise from going to a place outside for their usual plans and dealing with strangers throughout the day.

The information should cater to both casual and long-term fans, in addition to those visiting the stadium or city for the first time. This information can include accessible routes via public transport to the stadium, accessible parking, any changes to transport (such as road closures) on that specific day, pick up and drop off points, accessible entrances and exits, information on food and drink available and pricing, location and number of accessible toilets, and more.

These are small pieces of information to provide but can make the world of difference in encouraging neurodivergent fans to attend matches with confidence.

There are a number of ways to celebrate World Autism Acceptance Week, and we encourage you to think creatively with your own plans.

Spectrum Colour Walks are one example, where people can fundraise and walk, usually wearing colourful clothes to raise awareness and celebrate autism. These walks should be organised to be accessible not only for those with autism but any other disability, so sensory elements are considered as well as proximity to accessible toilets throughout the route and accessible transport.

Other forms of fundraising are also encouraged, in addition to corporate fundraising where people can sign their work up to get involved in ways they decide. Peer awareness resources are also available on the website to help you talk to children in schools or young adults.

There are still large areas of research to cover within autism to understand more about how we can support each person. However, there are great examples of ways to continue raising awareness and making adjustments to not only remove the stigma around autism autism, but ensure that everyone feels comfortable and safe.

For further information on how a sensory room operates at a stadium, check out the Arminia Bielefeld case study.

Published 2/4/2024