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Weeks of Action: Nathan’s story and the sensory room ‘Game Changers’

Here we feature a special Weeks of Action blog from the Shippey Campaign, and how the addition of sensory rooms are real ‘Game Changers’ for autistic supporters.

This is Nathan’s story…

As a football fan, Nathan spent a whole lot of time watching matches on TV, with a visit to the stadium only being a dream. 

Nathan has Autism and is severely affected by busy, loud places, so the crowds and noise were going to be a massive hindrance to his interest.

We would drive past the Stadium of Light and Nathan would be awestruck by the size of the stadium and of course, the knowledge of what happened inside! He was desperate to go to a match and watch his heroes play. 

We did attempt to take him, however, no matter what coping equipment he had, nothing prepared him for the gravitas of the atmosphere. The people pushing past, shouting, loud laughter…and that was just the approach to the stadium. Once inside, the crowded walkways led to very close seating. Nathan’s confidence plummeted. He was terrified. We hugged him tight until the game began, but he didn’t dare look up. He retreated into a zone and didn’t want to come out.

He was tearful and hugely disappointed. We really can’t put into words how devastated he was. He didn’t understand how other people could go and shout and cheer, but he couldn’t manage. It confused him.

We didn’t stay the whole match, we went home and Nathan continued to watch televised matches. He absorbed himself in every match on TV, standing close to the screen, pretending to be there.

This was heartbreaking for us as parents to see.

It wasn’t long until he asked again if he could go to the stadium. It was at that point that we knew what was needed.

When we set up The Shippey Campaign (registered charity number 1166989) we had thought about what was needed in depth. As parents of three boys, all diagnosed with Autism, and all completely different, we knew that our concept of sensory viewing rooms had to be right. They had to suit all aspects of the spectrum. This was no easy task.

We also knew that if Nathan was struggling like this, then thousands of others would be. It wasn’t right that there were barriers like this at stadia. It’s not right that in not providing these rooms, clubs are refusing entry to an enormous group of supporters. 

It took us 11 months of hard work, which involved drawing plans, researching, emails, meetings and speaking to specialists (paediatricians, SaLT, Autism Outreach Team and the Deptuty Head of Sunningdale School which is where Nathan attends) to check that our plans were feasible.

On August 15th 2015, Nathan’s life was about to change.

The Nathan Shippey Sensory Room opened at Sunderland AFC. 

We saw Nathan begin to transform from a distressed young boy who was prevented from enjoying watching football fully due to the lack of facilities to having confidence and the ability to look forward to a match just like others. He wanted to chat about the game, about who he’d seen at the stadium. He looked forward to meeting the other families and making new friends. He became a fully fledged football fan and enjoyed all aspects of the game…beginning the day before!

Over the last 18 months, we have met over 50 children with their parents/companions and witnessed some life altering moments.

At one point, Nathan was not able to expand his interest in football to actually going to the match. Now he can. He looks forward to match day and can enjoy it just like the thousands of others in the stadium.

The staff who work in the area of the room have noticed that Nathan’s confidence has grown amazingly! This is a part of his life that has become a normality… just like other people. He can enjoy it to the full with no barriers. 

We are now thrilled to have been part of developments at Notts County, Watford FC and there are more in the pipeline.

The Shippey Campaign has partnered with BT, The Premier League and Lords Taverners to have a grant available to Premier League clubs to apply for to help with the development of sensory viewing rooms. 

We’ve had lots of enthusiasm from clubs and as we are working closely with them all, we hope to see more rooms developing in the near future!

What they said…

Caroline has brought her nephew, Lewis, to use the sensory room at Sunderland on a few occasions;

“It is lovely that Lewis can go and watch Sunderland when they are at home. Lewis loves football but big crowds frighten him, since he has been visiting the sensory room, he can watch the football knowing he’s in a safe environment”

Ben Turner who has been a visitor to the sensory room at Sunderland;

‘Quiet and I feel safe and happy in there’

Join us this Weeks of Action and celebrate the Game Changers and get involved in the digital campaign here

Tweet us @lpftweets using hashtag #GameChangers to show your support for this years Weeks of Action campaign.