People joke all the time about sensory overload, when they’re hit with too much of whatever item(s) of culture they’re ingesting. It’s that moment when you’ve just had too much, and you need a minute to take a step back, compose and collect yourself, to recenter, and to get on with your day.
If you’re an autistic kid, or a kid with other sensory challenges, though, you don’t have the ability to take that step back. Everything just becomes too much, often in the blink of an eye, and you just can’t process things any more. You either shut down or you fixate on a thing, any thing, in order to try to find some order in an otherwise overwhelming sea of chaos.
Live sporting events are, historically, overwhelming seas of chaos, even for people who process things in a typical way. They’re loud, they’re fairly random and disorganized, and for kids on the spectrum, who tend to thrive on order, predictability, and the objective over the subjective (autistic kids can answer “are you hungry” with a yes or no, but have no context from which to answer “how’s your day going”), the swirling mass of movement, sound, light, and energy at a live sporting event can often be, and can quickly become, too much.
This is, obviously, not good - it’s not good for the kid who might otherwise like the game and enjoys it on TV but wouldn’t do well going to see a game in person, it’s not good for the parent who wants to go to the game but worries about how their kid will do in that environment, and it’s not good for the team, who want to reach out to and appeal to as many fans as they possibly can.
It’s with that latter concern in mind that Arsenal have joined the ranks of several other clubs and opened a viewing area with an adjoining sensory room for kids with sensory issues and their families. It’s an undecorated space (by design, to reduce distraction), with a big window onto the pitch so the game can be seen, and sound baffling so the sounds of the game and crowd are there but muted. There’s a separate entrance so the families don’t have to navigate lines and a turnstile with thousands of other people, it has tactile boards for kids to busy their hands with so they can stay engaged while they watch (often, if autistic kids have something in their hands they can manipulate, it’s easier for them to focus on external things), and there are both stools and beanbags for sitting, so the kids can sit in a way that makes them the most comfortable.
Next to the viewing room is the sensory room. This room has fully manipulable lights, sound, and some sensory-assisting toys and games, including the most awesome feature - a fully interactive floor which kids can play with that has different modes, like balloon popping or stepping on leaves or paddling on the Thames. Basically, the floor is a game area where kids can play and do their own thing and take a break from the match if they want.
The best part about all this? It’s free. All you have to do is talk to the club and make arrangements, because Arsenal have recognized that
there is no guarantee the child will enjoy the game and we don’t want to put parents in a position of having to gamble £50 on their child staying engaged.
That is an amazing gesture to the community, and Arsenal should be proud of the work they’ve done in creating this space for autistic kids and their families, and any family with a sensory-challenged kid. I have two seriously autistic nephews, and as I was reading this great Arseblog visit and in-depth experience with the viewing and sensory rooms, I could easily picture them going to a game here and having a really good time, and I really appreciate Arsenal taking the time and spending the money to get something like this not only off the ground, but so right in so many ways.