New research exploring facilities for neurodivergent sports fans in stadiums across the world has identified significant gaps in provisions for spectators with conditions like autism or other sensory processing disorders.
The internal research was commissioned by Experia – a U.K.-based specialist installer of sensory rooms and equipment. In 2022, the company began compiling data on the 20 largest soccer stadiums in the U.K. and UAE by undertaking website reviews and contacting stadium operators.
Later, it worked alongside sports journalist and autism advocate Richard Coffey to investigate facilities at 312 stadiums across the United States.
The data primarily revolves around the gold standard for this particular area of accessibility – the presence of sensory rooms in stadia.
Sensory rooms in sports stadiums are special private areas that can be accessed internally with a large window providing a view of the playing area. They are intended to be safe spaces for neurodiverse people of all ages but particularly children accompanied by family members. Inside the sensory room, spectators can enjoy the matchday experience in a controlled setting without experiencing sensory overload such as that associated with raucous crowd noise.
Often, sensory rooms will be equipped with additional features such as light and temperature controls as well as easy access to food, drinks and bathroom facilities. The rooms will also usually have soft furnishings, such as sports-themed bean bags, bubble tubes, soft play mats and additional audio-visual features as well as matchday staff specially trained in understanding conditions like autism.
These venues were Old Trafford the home of Manchester United, Twickenham stadium in west London the home of English rugby union and the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. The better news is that 15 of the country’s top 20 stadia do have some type of sensory room provision.
However, when looking further afield, the picture appears bleaker – with only 44% of U.S. team’s stadiums across major sports like NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA being sensory inclusive. Of 243 stadiums surveyed in the U.S. – a mere 70 offer bona fide dedicated sensory rooms.
Across the Gulf states, only 3 of the region’s top stadiums have a sensory room. These are Khalifa International Stadium, Al Janoub Stadium and Education City Stadium – all of which are located in Qatar and were venues during the recent FIFA World Cup.
Addressing the research, Gareth Jones founder and Director of Barnsley-based Experia said, “From supporting the Lionesses last year to the recent World Cup, sports have an incredible power to bring people together. However, people with sensory needs are, all too often, excluded from these powerful moments because stadiums cannot cater to their needs. Fortunately, change is happening, albeit slowly.”
He further added, “We hope stadiums the world over continue this trend to ensure everyone has a chance to cheer their team on in a safe, comfortable way.”
The first-ever sensory room at an English Premier League stadium opened in 2015 at Sunderland AFC’s Stadium of Light and came about as a result of campaigning by Sunderland supporters in the guise of the Shippey family who have three children on the autism spectrum.
The following year, the Premier League teamed up with British Telecom, The Shippey Campaign and The Lord's Taverners to begin the process of funding sensory rooms across 20 top-flight clubs.
For many decades, the needs of neurodiverse spectators have played second fiddle to those of wheelchair users with those supporters possessing a clear campaigning message and the type of visible one-dimensional disability that would appear, on the surface, simpler to address.
Even so a report at the end of last year by the U.K.-based sports venue accessibility organization Level Playing Field suggested the presence of deficits across all aspects of the disabled sports fan experience.
The survey, which canvassed the opinion of 1,309 disabled sports fans in the U.K., found that those citing negative attitudes of others as a barrier to attending events rose from 15% in 2021 to 28.5% in 2022, whilst those who commented on a general lack of accessibility at stadia rose from 30.5% to 36.5% during the same 12-month period.
In the aftermath of the UEFA Champions League Final last May contested between Liverpool and Real Madrid, Europe’s football governing body UEFA also faced a backlash from supporters for allocating only 93 wheelchair spaces to supporters of both clubs despite the venue for the Final, the Stade de France in Paris, having 550 wheelchair spaces overall.
Concerning the specific provision of sensory rooms, Christine Flintoft-Smith, Head of Accreditation at the National Autistic Society said, “We welcome any initiative to support autistic people accessing public spaces and sporting events. Sensory rooms provide a calming and quiet environment that can help some autistic people attend events that they may find overwhelming because they’re unfamiliar, loud and busy.
“We would also encourage venues to do other things to make themselves more autism-friendly, like making sure their communications and information about the venue are clear, and that their staff understands autism.”
Unlike the situation faced by long-term wheelchair users, the experiences and needs of neurodiverse sports fans wishing to attend live events remain highly changeable and dynamic.
For younger autistic children visiting with their family members, the sensory room may not need to be a permanent solution but rather a safe and secure way of familiarizing the child with the sound and feel of the matchday experience. In months and years to come, it may be infinitely possible to transition to standard seating.
Equally, even if the child, does not grow up to be a regular match-going fan – those early experiences in the sensory room may prove more than enough to ignite a passion that will last a lifetime and what major sports team wouldn’t want that?