Back in September, Arsenal opened their Sensory Room, a facility that helps children with special needs and their families to watch live football together at Emirates Stadium in an environment catered to their needs. Tim Stillman went along to visit the facility for Arseblog News to find out a little more.
“I’ve been going to Arsenal since I was 12years old,” Gina Edwards tells me. “I used to sit in the north bank upper tier with my school friend. My son was diagnosed with autism nearly 2 years ago now. Just before his 3rd birthday. I have taken my 6 year old daughter to several Arsenal matches at Wembley and the Emirates, but never thought I would be able to share the experience with my son.”
Dana Latter says that watching football in the ‘traditional’ manner is equally difficult for her and her sons, who have sensory processing disorder, “We have a purple membership and I often see supporters who can’t handle the noise and the crowds, they sometimes cover their ears or hug their mums really tight, or make different sorts of noises to help them cope with the noisy surroundings. My boys can handle crowds but can get quite anxious and a little disoriented.”
The Sensory Room and its adjoining viewing room help children with special needs and their families watch the game together in an environment that is conducive to them. The Sensory Room space used to be a TV studio for BT Sport, before Arsenal moved the company a few doors down to make space for the facility.
The idea was put to the club through contact with Kate and Peter Shippey, the driving forces behind the Shippey Campaign, which campaigns for people with sensory difficulties to have better access to sporting events. Kate and Peter Shippey met with Arsenal Disability Liaison Officer Alun Francis at the CAFÉ (Centre for Access to Football in Europe) Conference in 2015. A year later, the Shippeys met Arsenal Disability Officer Luke Howard at the Beyond Sport Conference. Both were quickly convinced of Arsenal’s need for a sensory room and work began in earnest.
“The club agreed to the idea in about October 2016, between then and June 2017, the pitch was made and the room was built in time for the West Brom game in September. It was important to have it in time for the Arsenal for Everyone matchday against Brighton later that week”, Arsenal Disability Officer Luke Howard explains. 7 other football league clubs have Sensory Rooms, including Watford, Sunderland and Notts County.
“We’re very lucky here,” Luke tells me, “Because we have the space in the stadium and the money to do it. Lots of clubs that do this either don’t have the space or lack the funds. Therefore, in the design phase, we spoke with charities and schools as opposed to other football clubs. The important thing was to create the best sensory room possible, that it happens to be inside a football stadium wasn’t the most important thing.”
The equipment was designed by Sensory Technology, who specialise in creating sensory environments for all manner of venues, in contact with the Shippey Foundation. There is no charge for families for children with sensory difficulties and their parent or carer to watch the game, applications are dealt with on a conversational basis with the club.
Luke explains, “Part of the reason we decided not to charge is because 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.” For parents of children with sensory difficulties, this is a huge consideration, even if they have purple membership, children can quickly decide they don’t like the environment and sometimes families have to leave before the end of the match.
Becky Maggs has an autistic son. Becky and her son Harley watched the Carabao Cup tie with Norwich from the viewing room and she explains that it wouldn’t be possible to take him to games via the general admission route, “Harley has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), so queuing is really a no go, he would not have managed the noise, crowd and queues if we had arrived through the turnstiles. He also would’ve struggled for the same reasons on the tube.”
THE VIEWING ROOM
Families arrive via the media entrance to give them the most serene entry to the stadium, away from the bustling turnstiles and match day crowds. They arrive at the viewing room via elevator. The viewing room and the adjacent sensory room are both accessible via the Club Level suite. The Sensory Room opens about 1 hour and 15 minutes before kickoff to help families that want to avoid crowds and stays open for 45 minutes after the match.
The Viewing Room has a very domestic vibe to it. In the front row are football shaped beanbags and the window sill of the viewing pane has several football themed tactile boards for the children to use during the game. “We want the kids to engage in the football where possible and the tactile boards help them to do that,” Luke says. Behind the beanbags is a row of seats and behind this, a row of barstools for an elevated vantage point. The sound of the crowd is ever so slightly muffled and ear defenders are available for children that need them.
The stools are largely for the adults, however some children are stimulated by balance and the twisting mechanism can help entertain kids as they interact with the match. The walls are intentionally not decorated in the Viewing Room so as not to take attention away from the game out on the pitch. “We don’t force kids to watch the game,” Luke points out “We just want families to have the chance to experience a game together in a homely environment.”
The Viewing and Sensory Rooms can accommodate up to 6 children and a parent / carer apiece and there are 2 members of staff on hand at all times. Attendance is rotated between families, it’s not monopolised by individual groups, nor is it possible to purchase a membership or season ticket for the area. The application process is flexible and informal.
The idea is to keep the environment as flexible, low key and relaxed as possible. The viewing room even has a small yellow hut, in case the experience becomes a little too intense for the children. The hut can support 300 kilos of weight, so people can sit on top of it if they wish, whilst kids can crawl inside with an iPad if they want to detach from the action on the field and in the stands.
“We try to make it obvious that the Viewing Room is distinct from the Sensory Room, the viewing room is about engaging with the game, we don’t want this to become a creche. But like I say, we don’t force the kids. Our only rule is that they are in the Viewing Room for kickoff so they try to watch the match. But if after a few minutes, they want to go back into the Sensory Room and play or chill out, that’s fine,” Luke says.
THE SENSORY ROOM
The Sensory Room is a state of the art facility next door to the Viewing Room. It’s effectively a digitally powered bunker that is used to stimulate the children, calm them down or simply entertain them as the mood dictates. This is achieved through a mixture of lighting, music, interactive games and toys.
The room is fully electronic and interactive. “If we want to chill them out, we put some Bach on and hit the UV lights. The lights can react to the music and the movement of the kids and that can have a calming effect,” Luke reveals. “Alternatively, we can go completely the other way and play an upbeat song with the disco lights so the kids can dance and get excited. You just have to judge the mood really.”
The room has a number of features designed to stimulate and entertain its guests. There are a selection of glow in the dark bibs that react well with UV lighting and a particularly ingenious toy cube. The lighting can be rigged to react with the cube, so that if the red side is touching the floor, the room turns bright red, if the green side comes to rest, the room turns luminous green and so on. The cube can also be rigged up to fluorescent poles in much the same way.
“We had a 4 year old child here for the Norwich game. It was his first ever match and it was in the evening, so he crashed during the second half,” Luke recalls, “So we brought him in here, made him a blanket out of the glow in the dark bibs, put the UV lights on and played him the Finding Nemo audiobook just so he could relax a little. He wasn’t able to engage in the entire match, but his family was able to come to the football as a family event and that is what this is all about.”
Becky Maggs reaffirms how useful the Sensory Room was for her and her son during the game, “He struggled with everything around him to stay focused on the whole match, so it was great that he could use the sensory room to calm down and relax for 5 minutes. The club was so accommodating, Luke and his team were amazing with our son and made him feel safe and happy.” The room is also equipped with an Infinity Tunnel, which is micked up and responds to sound.
There is the option to ‘Arsenalise’ the room too, with a UV cannon that can be projected onto the wall. However, it is not a permanent feature, as a cannon can be quite an intrusive sight for a child with sensory difficulties. But the centrepiece of the room, literally, is the interactive floor game facility. A number of images are beamed onto the floor which the kids can interact with. For instance, balloons can be projected onto the floor and the kids can step on them and make them pop.
The games are designed without a win or lose element so as not to frustrate. “The balloons are going to pop anyway and there’s no right or wrong way of doing it so nobody gets annoyed,” Luke explains. Children with sensory disorders or learning difficulties can become frustrated by their environments or upset very easily. “My son doesn’t have the ability to pretend. If he doesn’t like an environment – he makes it very clear. He will give me his coat and drag me to the door,” Gina tells me.
Some of the games are ‘Arsenalised’. Kids are invited to kick a hologram of Arsene Wenger’s head into a goal. There is also a floor game where the faces of current squad members appear randomly, jumping on them reveals a collage of Gunners players celebrating their 2017 FA Cup triumph. This can go some way to familiarising the children with the players. But many of the games are more generic, you can step on leaves and create a crumpling sound, for instance, or else paddle through the Thames and make the water ripple as you do.
“We swap the floor games over after about a minute,” Luke illustrates, “This gives all the kids a chance to get involved, but swapping them regularly keeps them engaged and stops them from getting frustrated.” 5 minutes before kickoff, the Match of the Day theme tune sounds and a 2 minute countdown clock becomes visible, to ready the children for migration into the Viewing Room for the game.
The facility is designed very much for children with special needs, but it offers something significant for the parents too. Parents or carers that apply to watch games via the Viewing Room discuss their needs with the club prior to arrival. Many of them are lifelong Arsenal fans that dreamed of bringing their children to games with them.
Autism can be a barrier to experiencing matches in ‘the traditional way’, but the Sensory Room offers families another route to a shared matchday experience, as Luke points out, “Parents get to take their kids. It might not be the way they imagined it, but so much about watching live football is about a shared experience with friends or family. This way, families can still have that.”
“We were extremely grateful to have managed to come to a football match as a whole family, which without the sensory room would have been impossible,” confirms Becky Maggs. Though given to frustration, children with autism are generally perfectly happy as they are and do not consider themselves disadvantaged by their condition.
People with autism or other sensory conditions can sometimes experience fascination quite intensely and Dana Latter explains that football has become very absorbing for her sons, “Football has become a way to help them communicate. Through learning about football, their vocabulary increased, as well as their focus what is actually happening on the pitch.
“When they were younger their hand-eye coordination was very poor so they couldn’t play football. By introducing more and more aspects of the game it has become easier for them to attend matches. My son Guy had no interest, but suddenly became very engaged with the game, he loved listening to commentators and getting updates about the football world.”
Watching football with one’s children, friends, family and siblings is a valuable bonding ritual often passed on through generations. Arsenal’s Sensory Room opens up that precious avenue to a few more families.
In March, I will be running the London Landmarks Half Marathon to raise money for Scope, a charity for disabled people and their carers. You can sponsor me here if you like.