Harry Redknapp wants football to be autism-friendly
Some of Harry Redknapp’s happiest childhood memories revolve around going to the football with his father.
His very first game was at Millwall – the 1956 Kent County Cup final against Charlton – which for a lad from West Ham really was stepping into the lion’s den.
In later years the 3-3 scoreline would probably have sparked crowd trouble but Harry, now 70, says: “It was different back then, the away fans and home fans would all mix. There was no trouble.”
Although match days still involved quite a bit of forethought.
We have done a lot to make it easier for people with physical disabilities to go to matches but autism is invisible.
“My dad was Arsenal and so was my uncle so I had no choice but to be Arsenal, even though 90 per cent of my mates on the housing estate where we lived were West Ham.
“We had to change buses a couple of times to get to the old Highbury and we’d always stop at a little cafe near the ground for a cup of tea and a cheese roll before we went in.
“My dad made sure we got there at 1pm for a 3pm kick-off,” he says.
“There used to be a big manhole cover, right by the corner flag, which was about a foot higher than the terracing.
“We’d get there early to get that position so I could see what was going on.”
Harry used to trek to Highbury with his Arsenal-fan dad as a child
The former Premier League manager, once tipped to take the England job, has lost count of the matches he has seen since those days – but he has never lost that little boy’s love of the beautiful game.
So when Harry was visiting Portfield School in Christchurch, Dorset, which is run by Autism Wessex – one of many small charities he supports – and learnt how overwhelming a match can be for a child with the condition, he asked what could be done to make the game more accessible.
“We have done a lot to make it easier for people with physical disabilities to go to matches but autism is invisible,” he explains.
“People who don’t understand it can sometimes think that a kid is just behaving badly and they can be very cruel.
“Going to the school makes you realise what some families go through. We have been blessed,” says the father of two and grandfather of seven.
“I think it’s important to give something back and because football has been such a big part of my life I want everyone to have the same opportunity to get involved.”
Autism is a developmental disability which affects the way people see the world and interact with others.
People with autism often fi nd it diffi cult to interpret facial expressions and tone of voice, and may not understand sarcasm or jokes, which can make the world a confusing place for them.
It is often described as a “spectrum” because it can range from relatively minor changes which might be put down to personality quirks, to severe learning disabilities.
Bournemouth lead the way in providing an autism-friendly football fan experience
Autism affects about one in 100 people and is more common in males than females.
Although the cause is not known, experts believe it’s probably a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
For someone with autism, crowds and noise can be unsettling and cause anxiety, while routines and familiar behaviours provide comfort and reassurance, so it’s easy to understand why a football game could be challenging.
However football also provides a perfect opportunity for children who often feel like outsiders to become part of a group, strengthen bonds with family and even form new bonds with fellow fans.
And as people with autism sometimes take a passionate and detailed interest in a subject, the statistics and record-keeping aspects of the game can be a big plus.
Harry poses with two autistic young Bournemouth fans
Autism Wessex is helping to break down barriers with its Autism Friendly Football initiative – a series of simple but incredibly supportive strategies to help families affected by autism.
Bournemouth is the first big club to get behind the campaign.
Stewards have been given extra training to help them understand autism and look out for anyone who might need support.
The charity is hoping the club will create a quiet room to provide a break for anyone with autism who is feeling overwhelmed and that videos will be added to the club’s website to show routes into the ground to help sufferers familiarise themselves with the stadium.
Harry says: “Football should be open to everyone.
“It is so important that we remove any barriers that might stop someone from coming along to a match and cheering on their team.
“I hope we can get every team in the country behind this.”
It might even encourage a future champion to get involved because although he doesn’t mention any names, Harry is convinced some of the players he has worked with have been affected by the condition.
“Of course there must have been,” he says.
Football legend Ronaldinho warms up with autistic children before a game in 2011 in Brazil
“I’m sure there are plenty of players who could have done with a bit of help but we were not educated how to look for it.
It’s not something that I would have understood as a manager.
“When I first started there was just a manager, coach and physio and the physio was an ex-footballer with no qualifications whatsoever.
“No matter what injury you had, they would put a wet sponge on the back of your neck,” he jokes.
● Find more about The Autism Friendly Football campaign at autismwessex.org.uk
Harry says going to the football like he did as a child should be easy even for those with autism
TACTICS TO ACHIEVE THE GOAL OF AN ENJOYABLE DAY
If your club has not signed up to Autism Friendly Football, these tips may help:
BEFORE THE MATCH
● Contact the club and ask if you can take your child on a pre-match visit to the ground.
● Ask if they have a quiet room where fans with autism can get some time out if they are feeling anxious.
As part of making sure you enjoy your day, identify yourselves to stewards on arrival at the ground
● Try to arrange early entry to avoid queueing.
● Talk your child through the whole day, from leaving the house to getting home.
Go over this several times before match day.
Use photos and simple text they can refer back to.
● Have a contingency plan in case your child feels overwhelmed or anxious and explain it to them so they feel reassured.
● If possible, practise your journey to the ground.
ON MATCH DAY
● Arrive early to avoid queueing and also to let the atmosphere build gradually around you.
● Identify yourself to stewards in case you need assistance.
● Bring a sensory/fiddle toy, a comforter and perhaps some earphones.
● Take along refreshments that your child is familiar with.
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