At the start of this year we set Aberdeen Football Club the goal of becoming autism friendly. I’m pleased to say that the club is well on its way to making Pittodrie the first football stadium in Scotland to achieve our charity’s Autism Friendly Award.
Two-thirds of autistic people told us they feel socially isolated, and 27 per cent said they have been asked to leave a public place because of behaviour associated with their autism. We launched the award to tackle this and honour organisations that make sure autistic visitors receive the same warm welcome as everybody else. It has only been given four times in Scotland to date – to the Scottish Parliament, Specsavers Glasgow, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and the Glasgow Film Theatre. Aberdeen Football Club will receive the award in the next couple of weeks, and it will be a very deserving winner.
The chair of Aberdeen Integration Joint Board tells me the enthusiasm with which the football club has approached our challenge is typical of its work to enhance the local community. It offers a special box for autistic fans, letting them enjoy games away from the noise and bustle of crowds. They can also get an information pack to prepare for their visit and reduce anxiety, and all front-of-house staff are taking part in autism awareness sessions.
Steven Sweeney, Aberdeen Football Club’s community operations manager, believes supporters shouldn’t have to miss out on the excitement and camaraderie of watching their team simply because they are autistic – if there’s a barrier to people attending matches, the club will do all it can to overcome it. He knows that small adjustments – such as advising when turnstiles are quiet and describing Tannoy noises so that they don’t shock – can make a huge difference to autistic supporters.
As well as working with the Dons, we’re helping Union Square shopping centre, Sport Aberdeen, Peterhead Football Club and Scotrail’s Inverurie Train Station to achieve our award. And we want to work with even more organisations – I would love to see restaurants, supermarkets, cinemas, pubs and more signing up to ensure autistic people can access and enjoy the places most of us take for granted.
I want all of Scotland to become autism friendly, but this year our charity is working with Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Health and Social Care Partnerships on a unique project which seeks to bring about change in those areas.
Our Autism Friendly Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire project will take place over the course of a year, so we’ve really had to ask ourselves what “autism friendly” means to us, and how we can have a real and lasting impact in a relatively short space of time. We decided to focus on three elements, one of which is reducing social isolation by increasing accessibility.
The second element is about increasing understanding of autism amongst people who know nothing about the condition, or who hear “autism” and think Rain Man. I think this is a really important part of building kinder, more tolerant communities – and putting an end to the staring, tutting and unkind comments autistic people are subjected to every time they leave the house. We’ll be spending World Autism Awareness Week (27 March – 2 April) in the North East, giving residents the opportunity to learn about autism through our Virtual Reality experience.
The third element of the project is about delivering support to autistic people who live in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, and for this we decided to focus on those who do not already receive statutory services from social work. This was partly because we didn’t want to launch a service, have people become dependent on it, then close it when the project concludes. But it was also because we know these people can slip through the net, and that small challenges can quickly become big issues. That’s why we’re offering workshops to help autistic people develop independent travel and social skills, as well as setting up activity groups and coffee clubs that will leave an autism-friendly legacy in the North East.
I am proud to be working with Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Health and Social Care Partnerships on this exciting, ambitious project. Together, I hope we can inspire more local authorities, football clubs, train stations, shopping centres and people across Scotland to become autism friendly.
Jenny Paterson, director of The National Autistic Society Scotland