The Latics have led the way and have become the first club in the Football League to offer sensory packs for autistic fans. These were introduced to improve the matchday experience at Boundary Park after knowledge that a fan couldn't go into the ground because of the queues and loud noises. The packs are free and include a map of the ground, a club-branded medal and a fidget spinner, noise-cancelling headphones and an Autism Awareness card. This will afford assistance by staff when entering the ground.
Latics' head of community Martin Vose said, “Myself and the staff at a youth club for autistic children sat down and discussed it and I went away and got my thinking cap on. We came up with some simple things that might help, we talked to the parents at the club and got their feedback. Midfielder Dan [Gardner] went round the changing room and fund-raised to buy the packs. The players put money into a little collection and he gave us the funds to sort the packs. Footballers get a bad press, but they have supported the initiative. Without their support it would have been a lot more difficult to arrange.”
Gardner has been instrumental in their distribution admits that he “didn't have a clue what autism was” before his three-year-old son was diagnosis. Gardner said, “When he was a baby he was crying quite a bit. I didn't notice it myself, but my girlfriend was always worrying about him, wondering if something was wrong. When he got a bit older, just after a year old, she looked it up and she said he might have autism. I thought when he got older he would be OK but, as time went on, I realised she was right. The diagnosis is a relief. It is hard but it's also good to know. He is special. Me and my girlfriend have been given something so special so we are happy to look after him. It's only a little thing [the packs], but to autistic children it keeps them going. It keeps them in the zone. It's little things to us but big things to them.”
Local radio star Jimmy Wagg, of BBC Radio Manchester, has been involved with Saturday football for nearly 30 years but he cannot go to a game with his 18-year-old son Joe, as he suffers from autism and learning difficulties. Wagg said, “He used to ride a bike, but he has no interest in football. I'm not even sure he'd understand the concept. It's quite strange because it's obvious now he has autism and learning difficulties, but when he was little it was a bit odd. There were a couple of great clubs where Joe grew up and because there were a few people who knew who I was, they would say 'oh is your son not joining in?' and I said 'Joe's a bit different.' Of course you always think when you find out you're having a little boy, that at some stage you will do those dads and lads things, like going to the match or having a game of golf. None of those things have happened but, to be honest, they were my dreams and not Joe's. I did take him to a game once which was a charity game at Altrincham, because I have a connection with the club, and he did wander onto the pitch. I was really impressed with what Oldham are doing because I know kids that are less severe than Joe who have a real passion for football. However, their autism comes with certain caveats and often the problem with a football match for an autistic child is sensory overload.”
“For Oldham it's just the start. We work really closely with the football club and we're looking at other disabilities. We can't conquer everything at once, but we are looking at the next step. We're a small club and each and every one of our fans mean something. When you're in League Two and getting smaller crowds, you can't afford to have any barriers for fans not to attend. By having initiatives such as these sensory packs, for nine people it's taken away a barrier to attend an Oldham Athletic match. You can't beat an afternoon at the football.”