Sunday, 10 April 2016

Sport and Autism

Now, people may call me biased on this one but I genuinely believe that sport can be one of the most important things in the world. To the autistic mind sport can represent many things; an ordered routine, a stress management technique, a pleasurable experience and even an understandable route to socialisation.
The last one is something I hugely advocate; using sport as a way to interact with other people can be a real godsend to someone who struggles with social interactions and knowing how to approach others. Autistic people are often told we 'go on too much' about our special interests or inappropriately want to talk about an exam we've just done or a meal we've just had. But with sport its not exactly unheard of for people to talk at length about a game or match they've just watched, breaking down ever play, every ref decision, every strategic gamble. Its also less frowned upon to know lots of stats and information about the people/clubs/places involved in sport, its seen to be the mark of a 'true fan' to know lots about a clubs history.
I remember times in the past when I very deliberately used this technique to ease my way into a social interaction - a couple of hours the night before dedicated to watching a football match followed by some quality Wikipedia research and suddenly the next day I could join in with the lunch break conversation about Liverpool's chances on the away leg. The beauty of the concept was that I could choose when to employ this, even at times shying away from talking about a game I had actually watched because I wasn't comfortable with socialising on that particular day - to my colleagues the small lie that I had 'missed it as I was tired' didn't just give me the excuse for not joining in but also allowed them to see the exhaustion written all over my face and slightly adjust their behaviour around me for that day, giving me more space.
Some people find it funny when I talk about sport, I'm not exactly what you would imagine a sports enthusiast to look like, but its the world I was brought up in. My parents ran an amateur cycling team in the 80s/90s and to me normal life was spending hours at the local track, weekends out following the road races, visitors regularly popping round for leg massages or team talks. I often talk in presentations/training sessions about 'safe memories' that can be used to help bring someone round from meltdown. My main and most powerful 'safe memory' is being in a village hall surrounded by guys that have just finished a road race, knowing that everyone in that room knows me and I am completely safe. To this day the smell of strong tea, oil/grease, sweat and muscle rub will mentally take me back there - the smell of Deep Heat is known to most people I encounter to be a sensory trigger for calmness and safety.
I think there's a lot that's wrong with sport at the moment, and I'm not talking here about doping allegations and ridiculous salaries, but about the way people (particularly autistic people) struggle to access sport. I want so much at the moment to get back into regularly supporting a sports team but find the pressure to be undeniable, if you try to say you are a fan of a team people expect a certain level of commitment, you can't seem to just say 'I support Saracens' without people saying 'well, when did you last go see them play?' 'are you a season ticket holder' 'do you got to any away matches' 'are you going to the European matches' 'are you getting tickets to the final' etc etc etc.
The sad thing I would love to be able to say yes to those sorts of questions, I want to commit fully to being an active supporter of a team because I think the clubs and the players deserve that, but I know I would struggle to maintain that level of support, I'd be fine whilst things were going well (both personally and for the team) but things get a lot harder when life becomes more complicated. A bad week at work coupled with an away game that results in a loss would send me into a tailspin, the sheer amount of energy I would have to expend on coping with the loss and then the subsequent lengthy journey home would leave me running on empty and with little time to recovery enough to cope with work on the Monday (especially if its a Sunday game). And this worries me, I don't want to be seen as a glory hunter supporter, only going when things are going well for my team (for the record I was introduced to Saracens as a team when I was 12, early impressions last and I often find the team I gravitate to in any sport is the first one I encountered!)
I'm heading to Wembley next week to watch Saracens vs Harlequins, I picked this game to go to because I'm familiar with Wembley and I know that there will be a different expectation of the crowd at this sort of game to one at Allianz Park. I hope the day is good, when I went to this match 4 years ago I did struggle at various points because of little things that could have easily been avoided. I'm hoping at some point to get to a Saracens home match just to see if I can manage it, time will tell on that one!
I hope there is a way forward for sport to engage more with the autistic community and listen to what we have to say, there are so many small adjustments that could be made to make our participation in sport better and more likely to be repeated. I've actually started to write a training session relating to autism and sport talking about those adjustments and why I think its so important. I just hope one day I can use it.

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