Editor’s note: April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day.
Bright lights, loud music, an electric atmosphere — big sports events can be a thrilling experience.
But for some fans, the sensory overload is a nightmare.
“I get messages on social media saying, well if they can’t cope, they shouldn’t go to football,” Joanne Lake tells CNN.
“Why can’t people with autism go to football? Why should it be different for them?”
Lake’s son, Edward, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three.
He comes from a family where soccer is king — his father Paul used to play for Manchester City and was rated as one of England’s brightest prospects before injury cruelly ended his career during the 1990s.
So it is no surprise that football is one of Edward’s passions — from watching games to reeling off statistic after statistic.
But going to big stadiums has been a problem for Edward, as it is for many people who have been diagnosed with autism.
The condition affects around 700,000 people in the UK, while U.S. estimates indicate one in 68 children has some kind of autism disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the latest estimate is 30% higher than the 2012 figure of one in 88 American children on the spectrum.
“At the beginning, he really struggled with the sound,” Edward’s mother says.
“He would wear ear defenders to help block out the noise. Sometimes we would have to take him out to the concourse to allow him to calm down.
“But he’s become more aware as he has got older and last week he went to the game without ear defenders.
“He also finds visual stimulation difficult. Things like flash lights, floodlights, flares, they’re all difficult to deal with. Then you’ve got the announcement over the loudspeakers and the loud music.”
Lake has worked tirelessly to promote awareness surrounding the condition, fearing that there are people who have not been as fortunate as her family in receiving the help and advice they needed.
“It came as a huge shock to us,” Lake says. “I didn’t really notice that he was that different but eventually we realized.
“In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened. It meant he got the support he needed at a very early age, which was crucial.”
According to the UK’s National Autistic Society (NAS), autism is a lifelong developmental disability which can affect how people communicate and relate to others.
It is categorized as a spectrum condition — while all autistic people share certain difficulties, it affects them in different ways.
Edward’s story is one shared by many children across the world.
According to a 2014 NAS survey of individuals, families and carers affected by autism, 43% of those who don’t engage in sport cited their sensory difficulties as reasons for their non-participation.
“Many people with autism have difficulty processing everyday sensory information and can often be over or undersensitive to sounds, sights and smells,” Amy Webster of the NAS tells CNN.
“A person with autism who is oversensitive to sound may find certain background noises, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. People who are undersensitive, meanwhile, may not feel pain or extremes of temperature.
“These issues can make it difficult for people with autism to be in certain sporting environments and, in some cases, can prevent them from participating in sport altogether. For instance, some people with autism find the smell of chlorine in swimming pools too overwhelming to swim; others may refuse to wear bibs in a team sport because the feel of the material is painful for them.
“But our Active for Autism program shows that coaches who have a good understanding of autism can help an individual navigate these issues by adapting coaching sessions and methods. People with autism, like anyone else, should be able to enjoy the well-documented benefits of sport.”
Autism expert Anna Kennedy believes football clubs can do more to help children with autism and their families.
Kennedy, who has two autistic sons — Patrick and Angelo — remortgaged her house to set up a specialist school in London after the boys were rejected by mainstream education.
Kennedy remembers how she was forced to leave Wembley — England’s national stadium — just 15 minutes into a game because her son was overcome by the sensory overload.
She has been working with Premier League clubs West Ham and Sunderland to come up with a solution for helping those with autism enjoy their day out at football.
Kennedy says many of them support their favorite teams from afar due to the difficulties of getting to venues and coping with crowds inside grounds.
“The hustle and bustle, the pushing and shoving, the long lines and noise levels affect the sensory issues of an individual on the autism spectrum, which impacts on the whole family as well as the individual who are hoping to enjoy and support their team,” she tells CNN.
West Ham, which will move into London’s Olympic Stadium in 2016, is considering plans to find a suitable viewing area, while Sunderland in the northeast is also examining options.
“A quieter viewing area within the grounds would simply make life a lot easier and enable the family to enjoy the game and support their beloved teams just like everyone else,” adds Kennedy.
“In my opinion it’s not a huge ask, it’s making reasonable adjustments that will give children and adults the inclusion that everyone keeps talking about.”
Kennedy believes a designated viewing area with a window looking out onto the pitch, like the executive boxes dotted around stadiums, would be perfect.
The window would have to allow those inside to be able to see while also ensuring their privacy is protected.
Lake says she will write to Manchester City before the start of next season to see if the club can help with finding a suitable viewing area at the Etihad Stadium.
She has been impressed with City’s work with Edward in the past, especially how the club welcomed him when he accompanied the players onto the pitch before kickoff.
His ability to cope with the matchday experience has improved steadily, helped by the use of statistics on the big screen.
“Edward is very stats-minded,” says Lake.
“He spends more time looking at the scoreboard than the pitch — he fixates on it.
“He knows all the fixtures, the scores, he’s very into all of that.”
One of the most difficult obstacles Edward has had to overcome is the fear of losing.
He struggled most at the 2013 FA Cup final, says his mother.
Manchester City, a huge favorite, played minnow Wigan — which would later be demoted from the Premier League that season.
City, with its array of international stars, was expected to win easily — but Wigan scored in the last minute to claim a famous victory.
“That was probably the worst meltdown he has had,” Lake says.
“It was the finality of it all — he knew there was no way back at that late stage of the game and it was a nightmare.”
Edward’s fear of losing means he no longer plays football and instead has transferred his attention to basketball. It is helping him overcome a number of problems and to learn the importance of teamwork.
Lake’s work with autism does not end with her son’s needs — both her and Paul are involved with UK-based charity Jump Space.
Its center uses trampolining as a way of helping children with autism — a method which has proved very successful over the past few years.
“There’s something about trampolining — they love the rhythm and the freedom it gives them,” Lake says.
Both Jo and Paul will be taking part in a 10 km run to raise funds for the center as it continues to help children in the local areas.
Edward, meanwhile, will probably be concentrating on Manchester City’s Premier League title challenge, which appears to have faltered in recent weeks.
But while City may be struggling to defend its crown, Edward is doing well. At his last game, he managed to attend without wearing his ear defenders — a huge breakthrough.
Slowly but surely, he is learning how to cope with his surroundings — and his parents could not be prouder.
“It was a big milestone for him,” says Lake.
“He’s getting older and he’s learning to adapt to his environment.
“He just loves going to football but perhaps next season we can have a day where the club embraces World Autism Day.
“Football is for everyone — why should those with autism be different?”