Sensory rooms at Australian Football League (AFL) stadiums could be standard if the St Kilda Football Club rooms at Docklands Stadium are anything to go by.
The specialised rooms at St Kilda, Hawthorn and Geelong’s home grounds have been well received among families of children with autism or sensory sensitivities, allowing football fans to enjoy a family day out at Australia’s beloved sport.
Providing fans and their families with the opportunity to sit in a quiet, dimly lit space and watch the match on a big screen without sound, the room also offers St Kilda-coloured, noise-reducing headphones as well as lounges, building blocks and putty.
In what is often a loud and overwhelming environment for people with autism, the AFL is considering making the sensory rooms mandatory for all clubs at their home grounds within the next few seasons.
St Kilda Football Club worked with several partners, including autism organisation Amaze, to refine the best approach to help fans with special needs relax.
"The AFL recognises the importance of calming rooms at AFL games and is planning to include a state-of-the-art calming room as part of the Docklands Stadium upgrade," an AFL spokesperson says.
"We will continue to work with all stakeholders to develop our strategy in other venues."
Hawthorn Football Club partnered with Afford (The Australian Foundation for Disability) this year to create a sensory friendly space that supports the club’s vision of inclusivity.
Chief Executive Officer of Hawthorn Justin Reeves says the Afford Sensory Friendly Space supported the club’s vision to be inclusive and welcoming place for people of all backgrounds.
“The Afford Sensory Friendly Space is a fantastic opportunity for the club to promote inclusiveness, positivity and social change amongst the football community,” he says.
“We launched the room for the first time in Round 2 and it was fantastic to see families utilising the space and its offerings.”
CEO of Afford Steven Herald says footy fans with sensory needs and their families may have previously stayed home to avoid overstimulation at the game due to loud noises and crowded areas.
"Now, they, and their families, can come and support their team in a space that caters to their sensory needs.
"Our partnership with the Hawks this year has presented many opportunities for us to provide new life experiences for people living with disability and sensory needs in Victoria.
“We are proud to be part of a genuine experience that supports inclusive opportunity for all,” Mr Herald says.
CEO of Geelong Football Club, Brian Cook says the sensory space at the club allows more families to enjoy Australian Rules football, a game deeply embedded in our country’s culture.
“It has changed the accessibility of our game. Now more people can attend and enjoy AFL football.
“This is a game changing initiative and one that we have been working on for close to two years.
“This permanent structure will benefit users of the stadium on non-AFL event days as well, and it will be available throughout the year.
The Geelong Cats would love to see this new facility as standard practice at all stadiums in Australia,” Mr Cook says.
CEO of Rockmelon, an autism support organisation, Nicole Rogerson says the clubs should be congratulated on this initiative and she welcomes the news that other clubs are considering similar arrangements.
“The reality for many people on the autism spectrum, is that some environments are quite overwhelming for them.
“Loud, sudden noises and crowds are big ones for many families to manage.
“Having these specifics spaces available to families mean that they have somewhere to retreat to, should the stadium become overwhelming.
“It also means that if the child needs to move away from the crowds, the family can still keep up with the match.”
Ms Rogerson says this initiative is not only inclusive but supportive too.
“No one is suggesting people with autism should only be able to join big public events, from a segregated space, not at all.
“They have merely made a sensory safe place for families to retreat to if needed. So much better than the whole family having to go home and miss out, in the event their child finds it all too much.
“I imagine those families have become even greater St Kilda fans!” she says.
Chief Research Officer of The Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC) Professor Andrew Whitehouse says installing sensory rooms in public spaces is as important as wheelchair access.
"A substantial proportion of football fans who adore their club are missing out on having the wonderful experience of seeing their team run around the park as these fans have difficulty processing sensory information.
"If we are not providing a way for these people to access all of the things that we take for granted and contribute to our quality of life, we’re shutting them out.
"Sensory rooms enable these fans to attend football games, and so for me, this is such an important way for football clubs to let their supporters know that the club cares about them and wants them to be involved.
"Given the influence the AFL has in Australian culture, this is a watershed moment for our community.
"Football clubs taking the lead on this says that we as a society understand the needs of the full range of humanity and that is wonderful," Professor Whitehouse says.