Football clubs want their stadiums to be vibrant and full of atmosphere and fans pride themselves on being the loudest and proudest but for people with Autism this can be just too much to handle, until now.
The Wear-Tyne derby is considered one of the most fiercely contested games in football and with 49,000 Sunderland and Newcastle fans packed inside the Stadium of Light, the atmosphere and noise created can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
It’s games like this that makes the Premier League such a saleable asset to TV companies around the world and what makes football so irresistible to fans up and down the UK.
One such fan desperate to attend a live game is Nathan Shippey, a young Sunderland fan with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
“Nathan’s first game was in May 2014 when Sunderland played West Bromwich Albion at the Stadium of Light,” said Nathan’s father, Peter Shippey.
“He was desperate to come to a game because he is always watching football on the TV; we felt that it would be a challenge for him but he was desperate to come.
“We gave him ear defenders and tried to prepare him in the right way but unfortunately he still struggled with the atmosphere and the noise levels within the main bowl, so we left after an hour and didn’t get to see the end of the game.”
Despite the setback, Nathan was desperate to attend another live football match so Peter purchased two season tickets for Sunderland’s Black Cats Bar area but he still couldn’t cope.
Unperturbed, Peter got in touch with the club and their enquiry was picked up by Sunderland’s Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO), Chris Waters.
“Peter had already purchased two season tickets in the Black Cats Bar for him and Nathan,” explained Chris.
“They got in touch with the club and raised their concerns that Nathan had struggled to cope with his first home game. Our stewards allowed them to stay in the bar and look through the door windows but whenever the doors were opening he still struggled with the noise of the crowd outside.
“I got in touch with the family and met them at the next available home game to speak to them about Nathan’s situation and see what we could do to solve the problem.”
For the rest of that season, Chris tried Nathan in different areas of the stadium to see if certain ones were quieter than the North Stand but still he struggled with the noise.
“We tried him in the Black Cats Bar with the blinds up which he dealt with ok but for rules and regulations you can’t keep the blinds open when the match is playing,” added Chris.
“So we came to the conclusion that the executive boxes would be the best solution. We were fortunate that one of our boxes is a shared box and one of the holders was more than willing to let Peter and Nathan go in there. So for the rest of that season he was in one of our executive boxes behind the screen.”
This success led to Peter and his wife Kate suggesting the idea of a dedicated sensory room within the stadium. “I certainly wasn’t aware of any other clubs having a viewing room which was suitable for kids like Nathan to watch football, so we thought this was a good idea,” said Peter.
“It wasn’t something I expected Sunderland to have, it was more a case of here’s our problem, and here’s our potential solution.”
Taking inspiration from the sensory room at Nathan’s school, Sunningdales, Chris, along with Peter and Kate visited the school to find out more about how it worked.
“The school allowed me to go in and visit them and have a look at the sensory room they have there,” Chris continued.
“Working with Peter and Kate, we gathered a lot of research about what we could have in the room and how sensory rooms work as they’re very much an area for calming youngsters down, so we wanted to do that but the main purpose was to still give Nathan a live view of the action.
“Peter and Kate went away and put forward a petition that they took around the local schools in the city and got a lot of backing. As the club’s SLO; I ensured this was passed through to the management and Board of Directors at the club for consideration.
“They looked at the research that was gathered as well as the key interest from families across the city with the view to having it open for this season (2015/16).
“We were very fortunate with the Black Cats Bar that is set up in the North Stand which has big windows available to use. We had walls put in place and worked with Sunningdale school who spoke to us about the type of equipment that should be in there.
“It’s a trial at the minute and we’re getting families in there to use it and gain their feedback. All the families that have used it so far love it and they think it’s a great facility and the location is ideal with close access to the toilet facilities.”
Following the launch of the Nathan Shippey sensory room at Sunderland the family have carried their experience into a campaign to get more clubs to introduce dedicated sensory rooms.
And the level of interest has been pleasing with the family invited to Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, who are looking to install a ‘Pod’ for fans with Autism as well as a visit to France where they gave a 10 minute presentation at the 2nd International CAFE conference at the Stade de France in Paris.
“Being in France was a good chance to network and meet people like David Bernstein, David Davies and Jack Lambert (Euro 2016). There were also lots of DLO (Disability Liaison Officers) and SLOs there and we met with Cathy Long, Head of Supporter Services at the Premier League.”
With the campaign in progress and interest beginning to grow, Peter expressed his thanks to Sunderland football club for the way they had managed the situation but warned there was still much to do.
“There are a lot of families with Autistic children as well as adults out there and this is something that could benefit hundreds if not thousands of football fans throughout the UK.
“It gets missed a little because when you think of disabilities at a football match, you think of people in wheelchairs and there’s actually a group of people that get forgotten about, those with sensory needs or have Aspergers [Syndrome] or Autism. There should be facilities for them.
“We can show other clubs what’s been introduced at Sunderland which is proving to be a success and should give them the confidence that it is the right thing to do.
“There’s an initiative going on at the minute where every club is spending so much money on away fan incentives but I think each club should be doing the same for facilities for fans with disabilities.”