Neurodiverse sports fans
About the study
Research carried out by NatCen, commissioned by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority in partnership with Level Playing Field, aimed to better understand the experiences and access requirements of neurodiverse fans when attending live sports events. In particular, the research examined how the experiences and views of neurodiverse fans related to questions about maintaining a safe environment for them within stadia and grounds. The types of neurodiversity that were represented across the study were: autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); dyslexia; dyspraxia; and Tourette’s syndrome.
Findings of this research project will enhance access and inclusion for neurodiverse sports fans when they attend live sports events. The research is a vital first step forward in addressing the lack of evidence within the field. Level Playing Field will integrate findings from the study into a new Accessible Stadia Guide that will be published towards the end of 2022.
Interviews and focus groups with participants revealed the following:
Requests for certain seats, such as at the end of a row to allow extra space or for people to avoid sensory overload or to allow them to get to a less stressful environment if necessary, were not always met. Participants wanted a way of booking that could take account of their needs, with a single accessibility scheme that recognised their requirements across different sports.
Information provision ahead of the day
Familiarity, routine and planning were key factors that improved the confidence of neurodiverse fans and their carers that their needs would be met. Participants wanted more information available accessible in advance of events, such as:
what to expect in terms of arrival and transport;
who would conduct security checks and what could be brought into the venue;
and who they could speak to for help.
Arriving at the venue early was a strategy adopted to help neurodiverse fans, and their family, friends or carers to feel more comfortable, safe and secure. This helped them avoid queues and crowds, which could be overstimulating and/or lead to a rise in anxiety. Participants wanted greater availability of accessible parking or more drop off locations nearer the venues. They also felt there should be more accessible entrances with staff who had an understanding of their conditions.
Negative encounters were reported arising from a lack of understanding of neurodiversity among staff and stewards. They felt that staff should receive training to be more aware of, and better understand the support needs and adjustments to usual practices needed by neurodiverse fans. Support from a disability access or liaison officers, was viewed more positively.
Narrow concourses and gangways and closely packed seating were reported as being particularly challenging. Fans often relied on support from other people to find their way around venues, but suggested new stadia should be built with wider, more spacious concourses, gangways, and seating. Signage could also be improved using pictures, colours, and larger text.
Long queues for toilets and refreshments could be difficult neurodiverse fans where this lead to stress, anxiety or sensory overload, and some were unable to use these facilities as a result. Participants were supportive of the provision of sensory rooms for neurodiverse children and for those with more complex needs but noted various limitations to these. They advocated having more designated seating and quiet spaces closer to seating areas that could be accessed without prior booking.
Many of the factors that improved participants’ overall experience also made them feel safer while attending live events. These included appropriate seating and accessible venue design, support from family, friends and other fans, and a strong presence of trustworthy staff who understood their requirements.
Engagement from clubs/venues
Finally, participants wanted greater engagement from sports clubs and venues with their neurodiverse fans. They suggested clubs or venues could have a ‘neurodiversity champion’ who understood their requirements and educated other supporters or fans attending in the same spaces. Participants also felt that clubs/venues could do more to raise awareness with other spectators, especially as neurodiversity does not always have visible signs that would be immediately apparent to them.
The research included qualitative interviews and focus groups with 24 neurodiverse sports fans (including carers/companions/guardians) carried out in February 2021. Its aim was to generate insights into accessibility and inclusion requirements and issues from the point of view of neurodiverse fans.
The study included fans who attended football, rugby, cricket, and tennis games or events. Regularity of attendance varied, from those who had never attended to those who attended to regularly, including season ticket holders.