“We had someone who didn’t make it into the ground because he struggled with the queues and loud noises.”
A trip to watch football is something large numbers of people take for granted but, for fans who have autism, it can be a challenge.
However, League Two side Oldham Athletic are leading the way in making their home games a more inclusive environment.
The Latics have become the first club in the English Football League to offer sensory packs for autistic fans to improve their matchday experience at Boundary Park.
The packs, which are free of charge, include a map of the ground, noise-cancelling headphones and an Autism Awareness card, which is to be shown to matchday staff and stewards to ask for assistance when entering the ground.
They also provide a club-branded medal and a fidget spinner – the toy originally designed to help children deal with stress.
“Myself and the staff at a youth club for autistic children sat down and discussed it and I went away and got my thinking cap on,” Oldham’s head of community Martin Vose told BBC Radio Manchester.
“We came up with some simple things that might help, we talked to the parents at the club and got their feedback.”
Of the 10 packs that were made available by the club following Martin’s discussions, nine have been given out.
‘We have been given something so special’
Oldham midfielder Dan Gardner admits he “didn’t have a clue what autism was” before his three-year-old son’s diagnosis.
“When he was a baby he was crying quite a bit,” he said. “I didn’t notice it myself, but my girlfriend was always worrying about him, wondering if something was wrong.
“When he got a bit older, just after a year old, she looked it up and she said he might have autism. I thought when he got older he would be OK but, as time went on, I realised she was right.
“The diagnosis is a relief. It is hard but it’s also good to know. He is special. Me and my girlfriend have been given something so special so we are happy to look after him.”
The 28-year-old, who joined the Latics from Chesterfield in June 2017, has worked with the club on raising awareness of autism and helped make the packs become a reality.
Any autistic supporter is eligible to receive a pack from the club, subject to Vose’s assessment of how much of a positive impact it might make.
“It’s only a little thing, but to autistic children it keeps them going,” said Gardner. “It keeps them in the zone. It’s little things to us but big things to them.
Vose added: “Dan went round the changing room and fundraised to buy the packs. The players put money into a little collection and he gave us the funds to sort the packs.
“Footballers get a bad press, but they have supported the initiative. Without their support it would have been a lot more difficult to arrange.”
‘Joe’s a bit different’
BBC Radio Manchester’s Jimmy Wagg has been part of the station’s Saturday football output for nearly 30 years.
However, he cannot take in a game with his 18-year-old son Joe, who suffers from autism and learning difficulties.
“He used to ride a bike, but he has no interest in football,” said Wagg. “I’m not even sure he’d understand the concept. It’s quite strange because it’s obvious now he has autism and learning difficulties, but when he was little it was a bit odd.
“There were a couple of great clubs where Joe grew up and because there were a few people who knew who I was, they would say ‘oh is your son not joining in?’ and I said ‘Joe’s a bit different’.
“Of course you always think when you find out you’re having a little boy, that at some stage you will do those dads and lads things, like going to the match or having a game of golf.
“None of those things have happened but, to be honest, they were my dreams and not Joe’s.”
Wagg knows first hand the impact that a football match can have on his son and is impressed with what the Latics are offering.
He continues: “I did take him to a game once which was a charity game at Altrincham, because I have a connection with the club, and he did wander onto the pitch.
“I was really impressed with what Oldham are doing because I know kids that are less severe than Joe who have a real passion for football.
“However, their autism comes with certain caveats and often the problem with a football match for an autistic child is sensory overload.”
Although the club have made a start, they realise there is still more work to be done on making a football match a more welcoming environment.
“There’s more awareness of autism now, especially with Anne [Hegerty] from I’m A Celebrity talking about autism and that will get it into the mainstream,” said Vose.
“For Oldham it’s just the start. We work really closely with the football club and we’re looking at other disabilities. We can’t conquer everything at once, but we are looking at the next step.
“We’re a small club and each and every one of our fans mean something. When you’re in League Two and getting smaller crowds, you can’t afford to have any barriers for fans not to attend.
“By having initiatives such as these sensory packs, for nine people it’s taken away a barrier to attend an Oldham Athletic match. You can’t beat an afternoon at the football.”
Source – BBC Sport / Oldham Athletic Football Club