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Sunderland’s sensory success

Sunderland AFC Sensory Room
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  • Sunderland first club side to install a sensory room for supporters with autism in 2014
  • The Shippey family were the driving force behind the project, Black Cats now have two sensory rooms
  • Sensory rooms installed by clubs nationwide thanks to The Shippey Campaign

For a large number of football supporters, the feeling of collective energy generated by a huge crowd is a crucial part of the matchday experience. A tightly-packed stadium with deafening atmosphere is the pinnacle for the vast majority of fans.

However, one in 100 people in the United Kingdom would find that an incredibly difficult experience. Those with autism and sensory difficulties can find large crowds and loud noises distressing – making the average matchday experience at a football stadium almost impossible to handle.

A seven-year-old Nathan Shippey was such a fan. The young Sunderland supporter, who has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, set out with his dad to watch his first game at the Stadium of Light at the tail end of the 2013/14 season – an experience that most would remember fondly for the rest of their lives. It was, however, a tough time for Nathan.

“We left just as the second half was beginning,” his father Peter Shippey told FIFA.com. “He cuddled into me saying he was frightened. I thought that was it. He wouldn’t be able to watch live football at a stadium.”

In the months that followed, Nathan was glued to his television, watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup™.

“He was clearly developing an interest,” Peter said. “And he asked me to go back to the Stadium of Light.”

After an unsuccessful trial with season tickets at the start of the 2014/15 season in an open bar area, with the idea of coming in and out to relieve any difficulties caused by the noise and crowd, the Shippey family sprung into action. They wrote to Sunderland, enquiring about the possibility of a safe space for Nathan and families like theirs to enjoy a matchday experience - and the club got on board.

“We agreed to meet with the family to find a suitable solution, so Nathan could enjoy the games,” Chris Waters, Head of Supporter Engagement at Sunderland AFC, said. “The Shippeys decided to come forward with the idea of creating the sensory room at the Stadium of Light.

“After much consultation with Peter, [Nathan's mother] Kate and Nathan, as well as with Nathan’s local school in Sunderland and the relevant departments in the football club, the Nathan Shippey Sensory Room was opened in 2015.”

The room has been such a success, that a second sensory room opened in 2018, with Sunderland the only club in the UK to have two sensory rooms to cater for people with autism and sensory difficulties.

“Now they’ve got a safe area if they need it,” Peter said. “If there’s a big noisy crowd out there and they feel a bit intimidated by it they can come in here, get away from it. What I love about it is that it’s not silent. It just takes the edge off it, tones it down, so if they want to experience the noise they can do in here.”

“The feedback we’ve received has been fantastic,” Waters said. “Many of these supporters have been so grateful for the introduction of the rooms and it’s provided a unique opportunity to attend matches at the Stadium of Light that wasn’t previously possible.”

In the time between the two rooms opening at the Stadium of Light, the family began The Shippey Campaign, and they continue to consult with a host of football clubs and associations to bring their idea of inclusivity nationwide.

Sunderland AFC Sensory Room

16 sports stadiums, inspired by The Shippey Campaign

  • Airdrie (Excelsior Stadium)
  • Arsenal (Emirates Stadium)
  • Chelsea (Stamford Bridge)
  • Crystal Palace (Selhurst Park)
  • Everton (Goodison Park)
  • Liverpool (Anfield)
  • Middlesbrough (Riverside Stadium)
  • Newcastle United (St James’s Park)
  • Notts County (Meadow Lane)
  • Qatar FA (Khalifa International Stadium)
  • Rangers (Ibrox)
  • Southampton (St Mary’s Stadium)
  • Sunderland (Stadium of Light)
  • Wasps [Rugby] (Ricoh Arena)
  • Watford (Vicarage Road)
  • West Bromwich Albion (The Hawthorns)

Fast forward to the here and now, a cold February night at the Stadium of Light in 2019 and, while Sunderland may have suffered consecutive relegations on the pitch, they are still able to provide top class facilities for those with disabilities, thanks to their pair of sensory rooms.

Almost five years after his first experience at the stadium proved too much for him, Nathan clearly enjoys Sunderland’s match against Gillingham - the 4-2 victory the icing on the cake - as he is able to progress from inside the sensory room to a platform outside, in the main bowl of the stadium.

“You can see the improvement in Nathan, socially,” Peter said. “Confidence-wise, he’s getting much better now. I’m so proud of how well he’s doing. It’s bringing him on a great deal.”

After every goal, Nathan joins another young fan in the sensory room in celebration – a well-choreographed ‘Take The L’ dance from Fortnite. The pair are able to celebrate the goals of their idols in a stadium on a matchday, like everybody else. The way it should be.

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