That’s me with my son Reggie. I’ve always loved going to watch Arsenal and now he does too.
From as long as I can remember, this football club has been a big part of my life. I remember sitting in front of the TV, a little girl in her pyjamas and long blonde plaits, looking up at the likes of Tony Adams, Ian Wright and Ray Parlour donning the JVC shirt.
Watching them set Highbury on fire time and time again became a routine part of my childhood. I can still hear my dad’s shrieks and screams coming from the sofa above me, and my mum telling him to calm down!
Pizzagate, the classic Vieira v Keane rivalry, Steve Morrow’s broken arm after being dropped by Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp’s legendary goal against Newcastle in 2002, Thierry Henry’s 228 goalscoring record, and of course the unbeaten season of 2003/04. The memories are just endless, and ones that I will never forget for as long as I live.
I loved the feeling of the packed tube carriage ride from Euston to Highbury and Islington on a matchday, the walk to the stadium in all sorts of weather, sitting comfortably on my dad’s shoulders. Feeling the excitement build as I watched the current of fans all heading in the same direction, looking forward to having the same experience.
The anticipation and excitement that I picked up on from my fellow supporters from a young age was palpable, and for me most certainly addictive. I would go so far as to say that Arsenal is almost part of my DNA: I could never pledge my allegiance to another club and I am proud to be an Arsenal fan.
When I fell pregnant with my son, Reggie, in 2009 one of the things I was most looking forward to was being able to take my son to watch the football. To hand down the legacy of supporting Arsenal the way my dad handed it down to me was a priceless honour I was so looking forward to, something I couldn’t wait to do with my baby when the time was right.
In fact, the day I left the hospital with my newborn, October 31, 2009, we had just beaten Tottenham Hotspur 3-0. Now THAT felt like a good omen for things to come!
Reggie’s first game of football was not what I expected - to say the least - and was before he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He was completely overwhelmed from the beginning of the day: the crowds, the smell of the food stands, the noises, echoes, and volume of activity going on around us completely consumed him.
Looking back, and knowing what I know now about autism, heightened sensory needs, and everything that can be associated with that, the day must have been a harrowing challenge for him, and not one to be taken lightly.
He was fixated on the clicking and clacking of the turnstiles, climbing underneath his seat, constantly trying to retreat into the stadium and away from the pitch. Striving for the peace and quiet which, let’s face it, is not what you associate with football.
His body was rigid, tight and shaking. His breathing was short and tense. His eyes did not know what to focus on, and his little red hands were white at the knuckles and fingertips as they were pressed so tightly against his ears trying to block out the sound.
The difference in him once we left was like night and day: he unfolded, his breathing regulated, and he felt like my gorgeous and relaxed little boy again. The physical reaction was frightening and unlike anything that I had ever seen. So for years after that football was firmly off the menu of activities we could access together, and became almost a negative.
Football remained a solitary activity for me to enjoy when I wanted so much to be able to share its magic with Reggie - and as a parent it is an emotionally shattering feeling. A feeling of failure, a feeling of loss, a feeling that you are segregated from something that you once loved for someone that you love even more. So surely the sacrifice must be necessary, right? At least that is what I tried to convince myself for three long years.
Then things changed for the better. In February 2017 Reggie began to attend weekly football sessions for young fans with special educational needs at the Arsenal Hub, run by Arsenal in the Community. He had received his diagnosis of autism in September 2015 and by now was attending an autism resource base after it became clear that he was not suited to the mainstream school environment.
I can honestly say that from the moment we stepped into the sessions, for the first time in a long time, we felt welcome and a part of something that Reggie could access in that way that he needed to. It truly was a revelation. The visual supports, physical modelling of what was required, short and simple verbal instructions, just the overall flexibility of the sessions, and the freedom Reggie was given to just be himself, opened up the world of football to him when I had reached a point that I believed it wasn’t possible.
This positivity and vision then grew alongside the commission of the Sensory Room at Emirates Stadium in 2017, which Reggie and I were privileged to be a part of. Not only has this facility saved our family’s football dream; it has breathed life into it and taken it to unimaginable heights.
This space is a safe haven for fans with heightened sensory needs as a whole, and highlights my core belief: everybody, regardless of gender, age, social background, or how they perceive the world around them, has the right to access and enjoy football.
It is the responsibility of football clubs to recognise this and want to make it possible. Arsenal are taking steps towards this, partly thanks to the vision of their disability officer, Luke Howard. The change in Reggie on a matchday now is worlds apart from the scared, overwhelmed little boy who tried to attend the Arsenal all those years ago. He now asks Luke at sessions when he is next going to the Sensory Room!
He even joins in with the Mexican wave which rings around the stadium from the viewing room where he feels safe, comfortable and accepted. Football is no longer a taboo or forbidden fruit - it’s an enjoyable and precious experience for my little family and for many others, which is exactly what it should be for everybody.
My son has now found a part of himself at Arsenal Football Club thanks to the Sensory Room project. He can belong at Arsenal now thanks to this, and that is something that money can never buy. It’s like Dennis Bergkamp said: “When you start supporting a football club, you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.”
Arsenal have made it their mission to open up the world of football and supporting this club to fans that otherwise would always be on the outside looking in, simply because they perceive the world differently to other people. That’s not reason enough. More and more of the ‘forgotten ones’ are being brought out of the darkness that is fear, isolation and rejection, and into the light that is our Arsenal community. Their differences are being understood and embraced, and that work is happening now. I cannot thank the club enough for that.
If you are reading this and can in any way relate, please know that you are not alone. If you are a parent, relative or friend to a child, teenager or adult with any type of special educational need, try to not be scared of a diagnosis. I know this takes daily emotional work.
The fear of the unknown and your fears can creep in at any time, but I promise you that there are always far more positives to be taken from our experiences. We may just have to search a little longer and have a little more patience to see these little blessings that life does bestow upon us. I would never take Reggie’s autism away because that is who he is, and he is simply amazing.
He makes me laugh every day. We simply do not all perceive the world around us in the same way. Adjustments need to be made, but that’s OK! We all deserve to have the tools to access every experience in life that we can. For our family, football was one of those experiences, and we really are living that dream now.
So thank you Luke, your team and thank you Arsenal… up the Gunners!
Copyright 2019 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.