Erin Mitchell loves football but hasn’t gone to a game in years.
“It’s always been part of our family, my brothers played, and then I played,” she says.
“You want to be there because you love the vibe and the environment, but there’s also that constant anxiety.”
Based on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Mitchell once held a Mariners season pass but stopped attending matches due to the sensory challenges caused by her autism and ADHD.
“As my kids got slightly older, they became more sensitive to noise and so did I,” Mitchell says.
“I became a lot more sensitive to the people and the stress of all the sensory inputs… but I still enjoy watching TV.”
Attending live games is often challenging for neurodivergent people, including those with autism, dementia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mitchell describes it as an oppressive feeling.
“I always felt on the edge, like I could never fully relax at a game,” she says.
“My anxiety presents in anger, so I used to get very angry at people around me for making too much noise. That bothered me, but I couldn’t help it.”
Tasks that seem mundane to most of the population can be stressful for neurodivergent people, like lining up for toilets, food, drinks, or to enter and exit the venue.
Filling up the stress ‘bucket’
Autistic people often experience the world from the bottom up, taking in all the information from the surrounding environment, unable to filter out unnecessary details in the way neurotypical people can.
The increased sensory inputs that come from the stadium environment can add to an individual’s stress ‘bucket’, including noise from crowds, fireworks, and music, as well as artificial lighting, smells of food, or being touched or shoved in crowds.
Whilst all people have a ‘bucket’, or a limit of how much stress they can handle, the bucket for neurodivergent people can be smaller and fill up faster than those around them.
Last-minute changes to plans or entering a new environment can add to that ‘bucket’.
It can also lead to a ‘meltdown’ if the bucket overflows.
During a meltdown, autistic people may have little control over their bodies and emotions, and can feel the most extreme versions of anger, fear, or sadness.
Meltdowns can physically present through actions like crying or screaming, increased self-stimulatory behaviours (known as ‘stims’), and sometimes hitting, biting, or punching themselves or others.
Generally, a meltdown can’t be stopped once it has started.
Sensory rooms and backpacks available for neurodivergent fans
FIFA has announced a range of initiatives to make the 2023 Women’s World Cup more accessible for neurodivergent fans.
Sensory rooms are available at three of the 10 stadiums being used for the tournament, with one at Sydney’s Stadium Australia, Brisbane Stadium and Eden Park in Auckland.
So-called sensory rooms are controlled environment that provide support or relief to people with diverse sensory needs.
They have less challenging sensory inputs, with non-abrasive lighting, and fewer sounds and smells than the surrounding venue.
They are staffed by people with expertise in neurodiversity and include soothing sensory items like blankets or pillows with different textures.
They also include fidget tools, which are small tools with moveable parts that allow people to ‘stim’ and release stress.
Each stadium also has 20 sensory backpacks for fans to borrow, stocked with noise-cancelling headphones, fidget tools and verbal cue cards.
Neurodivergent people can struggle to communicate when overwhelmed, and at times may be completely unable to speak (otherwise known as being non-verbal).
Cue cards serve as a communication tool for these situations, allowing the individual to show a cue card with a phrase (for example, “I need help”) instead of speaking.
The cue cards will be available digitally through the Kulture City App.
A visual step-by-step guide to the game-day experience called ‘Visual Stories’ is also available on the same app to help fans set expectations before attending.
For autistic fans, being able to plan ahead can minimise the stress caused by attending games, allowing them to familiarise themselves with the environment by reducing the number of decisions that need to be made on the day.
FIFA have also partnered with the Sunflower Lanyard Initiative to help staff and volunteers identify and support fans with hidden disabilities, including neurodivergent people.
‘More can be done’: Autistic Self-Advocacy Network
Independent director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network in Australia/New Zealand, Katharine Annear, says that while initiatives like these are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to make sporting events truly accessible.
According to Annear, specific accommodations like sensory rooms and backpacks may help some neurodivergent people, but fail to address many of the issues that fans face at games.
“That’s where the education comes in,” they say.
“We can provide all these tangible things like rooms and sensory things, but unless staff in general know what to expect from a person with communication differences, that’s where things can break down.”
Annear explains that communication differences present on a spectrum, from being unable to speak at all, to being short or ‘snappy’, not understanding instructions from others, or finding it hard to properly articulate their thoughts.
Initiatives that allow fans to communicate non-verbally, like sunflower lanyards or cue cards in the sensory backpacks, may help bridge this communication gap in the stadium environment.
“One of the significant issues is understanding that people communicate differently,” they explain.
“It might not be that a person is not speaking, but certainly that’s the case for some autistic people, but also that a person might — because of the environment or because of their own language processing — have difficulty understanding instructions when they’re overwhelmed, or difficulty asking questions.”
An inclusive game, by contrast, should feel seamless to neurodivergent fans.
Annear says that while FIFA is heading in the right direction, true accessibility has not been reached for this World Cup.
“It’s about increased efforts to make it actually quite normal and typical for people with all kinds of conditions that may produce disability, making it just typical for them to be at the football,” they say.
“The ultimate goal is that people are just included in the community.”
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