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Neurodiversity in Sport, the time is NOW.

We are all in the same storm but in very different boats.

Bear with me while I talk about my very brief rowing career at school…

I was primarily a cox for the senior boys’ crews, and a key memory for me was when I accidentally steered the school’s brand new 8 into the side of a bridge. I’d only ever been in a quad and when I was learning I’d got a bit muddled with which way to steer. I’d managed to keep all the boats in one piece though, probably because the margin of error was slightly greater with a smaller boat. I was told this new boat was easier than the boats I was used to, and the different steering system was explained to me. As I embarked on the inaugural journey of the school's most expensive boat to date, there was such trust in my competency because I had been told enough times that I should get it right. Arriving back at the boat shed with a lovely, lengthy scratch on the boat, would suggest I probably needed some more understanding and a DIFFERENT approach to learning.

In this story I was quite literally in a different boat, but what I take from this now is how I was wildly different from most people in the way I processed information and experienced sporting environments - I am Neurodivergent. The things I became good at, and enjoyed in life involved repetition of the same thing and when something different or new came up I struggled to cope and adapt. My experience, along with many other people’s, has showcased that not everyone functions in the same way, and people can divert off course from what is expected. I like to compare these divergent experiences to RIPPLES in water, and the more people speak up about their experiences - the more energy propels the ripples.

I am going to move on to an actual rower, Caragh, who packed up her (again literal) rowing boat to raise acceptance for Neurodiversity in the sporting world. As co- founder of Neurodiverse Sport, Caragh has a vision to change the narrative of how we treat and include Neurodivergent athletes and therefore optimise their potential. And, on Thursday 21st March 2024, ripples became WAVES.

I had the privilege of attending the first in-person Neurodiverse Sport event in London, with the immense views of Tower Bridge and the sensory overwhelm of London office lights providing the setting for an evening I will remember for a very long time.

When I arrive at the event, it feels like any other networking event. I have the same feelings of OVERWHELM. People I don’t know everywhere - scary - and the DISORIENTATION of where I should go and what I need to do to survive this social event. My brother, Seb, is there to support me and help me function in what was always going to be an overwhelming experience. As there was an event package sent out in advance, I know who the organisers are, what the schedule is, and that there is a quiet room and food available. Honestly though, this all goes out the window as I try to identify a safe place to sit down at the back of the room - to ground myself and take in the surroundings. If it wasn’t for Seb, I would have gone straight to the quiet room. But in my overwhelm I miss where the quiet room is on my way in, my vision becomes narrow, and my senses heightened - I am functioning in SURVIVAL mode.

However, I soon begin to feel that this is not an event like any other event, and this is for some very subtle but incredibly impactful reasons. This is a neuroinclusive event. There is recognition that we are all in this storm together - bright lights, busy room, warm temperature (London had had a minor heat wave during the day for March standards and the room had functioned like a greenhouse) - but in completely different boats. We can’t always control the surroundings, but we can acknowledge and validate the experiences of EVERYONE. 

I am overjoyed when the structured bit of the evening starts, I have bagged my aisle seat, and I am starting to feel more at ease. I am ready to sit and listen to the panel discussions - the main event of the evening.

The first subtle and powerful thing I notice, that further eases my discomfort, is when Caragh explains why there has been a change in plan from the schedule - that she’s no longer standing up in front of us all on her own sharing her story. Instead, she’s being asked questions by her best friend with her husband by her side. Why? Because it’s the most COMFORTABLE way for her to operate in what’s a very challenging environment for an Autistic person. The ownership, honesty, and communication of this validates every other person in the room who is struggling in some way. I suddenly feel like I’m not alone, and we are all having a collective, but individual, experience together. I listen intently as Caragh and her husband, and co-founder, Mikey authentically share their stories and vision for the future of Neurodiverse Sport – I start to feel INTENSE emotion as I get both inspired and moved by their words.

Next, under the bright lights (I start to think they might have got brighter at this point); we hear from a panel of people who have achieved, and are achieving, great things in sport. They are all advocates for Neurodiversity in their own UNIQUE ways.

Then, when former British Ladies number 1 in tennis, and current sports broadcaster, Samantha Smith starts to talk, the second subtle and powerful thing that highlights to me this is a Neuroinclusive event happens. Sam explains to us that the bright lights in the room are a real sensory challenge for her, something me and others are really feeling too. I have huge respect for Sam because despite her sensory difficulties she is talking to us from a place of passion. I think to myself, imagine being able to be open about these types of experiences in every room you are in? And I find myself getting emotional again. As we learn, it was not always the case for Sam to feel comfortable in sharing her Neurodivergent experiences. Sam found out about her Neurodiversity later in life but had always known she was different in some way. During her tennis playing career she found it difficult to find a coach who could work well with her and found it hard to regulate her behaviour. Now, she is talking about Neurodiversity in tennis and tells us if she doesn’t - then who will?

As the panel discussions continue, led by Autistic journalist and Neurodivergent consultant - Nick Ransom, we hear from current Reading Women’s footballer Brooke Hendrix. Brooke has ADHD, and she tells us how she openly talks to her teammates about it. As she talks her energy is noticeably positive and you can feel how much the acceptance from the players around her means. We are in a room of acceptance talking about acceptance and at this point I’m not sure I’m going to be able to keep my intense emotions in check.

We also hear from Greg Halford, an ex-professional footballer who learned he is Autistic after his son was diagnosed as Autistic too. Greg shares how he was moved around clubs because he didn’t fit into certain dressing rooms. It’s apparent as he shares his journey that some understanding from managers could have helped him realise his true potential. I do sense his pride in what he was able to achieve despite the lack of understanding. I’m taken back to the challenges I faced in certain dressing rooms and feel intensely sad as these thoughts come up; as I struggle to manage my emotions I want to leave the room, but I stay.

Neurodiversity advocates do not have to be Neurodiverse themselves and as the panel discussion continues, we are introduced to an ally in this space - Matt Rogan. Matt talks to us as a parent with two Dyslexic children, embracing Neurodiversity in sport through supporting them to navigate high performance pathways - and very much advocating for other young athletes who are in the same boat. It must be said that Matt is also an expert in the sports industry and is clearly passionate about opening doors for Neurodivergent people. If 20 percent of athletes are Neurodivergent (at the very least) then 20 percent have not necessarily found their top level? This concept is game changing for sport. I start to think about what I might have been able to achieve in cricket had there been more understanding, but quickly suppress this thought and the intense emotion that comes with it.

Waves can’t be ignored; they are functions of momentum and creators of disturbance. These waves are happening NOW, and the world needs to listen to and UNDERSTAND the experience of Neurodivergent athletes.

Let’s go back to the waves being created… and use their force to create action for Neurodiversity in sport NOW. As Nick begins to wrap up the panel discussion, he asks each panellist to let us know what they believe to be the most important things to focus on in Neurodiversity in Sport. 

An overwhelmingly popular response shared across the whole panel is the importance of coaches and managers actively UNDERSTANDING and showing SUPPORT. Brooke feels she can talk to players, but that it’s harder to talk to coaches; Sam believes we need to teach the coaches about Neurodiversity too, after all she found it so hard to find someone who would work with her; Matt believes coaches need to be more inquisitive and more knowledgeable on Neurodiversity and Neuroinclusion. For Greg, it was hard to know who to trust in terms of managers and he believes we really need understanding and investment in Neurodiversity from the decision makers in sport. If there was more of an effort to include, rather than keep sending people to other teams, this would save unsettling the individual but also save money on unnecessary transfer fees. Greg's passionate statement that successful teams take care of each other and understand each other gets me all emotional again. 

Sam enthusiastically tells the room that it is worth investing money in this space as she explains how the sporting arena has changed dramatically. There are changes in environments now that may expose peoples’ Neurodiversity earlier. Sport is becoming more of a show with loud music and bright lights, so Neurodivergent people may need more support with sensory needs and people might find out quicker that they have a diagnosis.

Matt brings me back to how we are all in the same storm but in different boats as he says that this spectacle part of sport helps his children stay engaged, and we need to all figure out the answers to Neuroinclusion because of how the different Neurodivergent conditions present themselves. It is far from straight forward… but what is apparent is the need to listen in order to understand all the experiences. Question master Nick says Matt talked too long in his response, and then comments that maybe that was too honest a thing to say, but acknowledges this is part of his own Neurodiversity; this further instils that this is an environment to own your Neurodiversity. I am so here for this. Before we move on to the next part of the schedule and break out into networking, Annie from The Athletes House wraps up the panel discussions and openly talks about her “Why”. She acknowledges that she’s learned over the course of the evening how she can facilitate more Neuroinclusive spaces. Annie is clearly a high empath and shows her understanding that people have experienced the room in different ways. When she says, “I am autistic” and is learning to be her authentic self I can barely contain my emotions now.

Something about storms, boats, ripples, and waves…

The panel discussions inspire me so much, I go and have a time out in the quiet room to regulate my emotions after their set. I miss the guided meditation that was next on the schedule, but my emotions have built up so much over the course of the evening I could not cope with being in the room anymore.

The evening was very much about providing the sports industry with an opportunity to learn via the showcasing of Neurodivergent athletes and their unique lived experiences. I loved it because it was an event driven by those Neurodivergent people and it provided an opportunity for their voice to be heard. To be heard without being drowned out by an industry that has too often tried to push those who don’t conform back into a ‘Neurotypical’ box (or out).

It is hard to wrap this all up to be honest… I hope everyone spreads the knowledge shared from the night and the sports industry thinks differently about; how to educate coaches, how to communicate to their athletes and how to INCLUDE people in a way that accommodates for Neurodiversity. Neuroinclusive environments will help more people reach their true potential with or without knowing diagnoses. The power of what Caragh, Annie, Mikey, Brooke, Samantha, Greg, Matt, and Nick shared with a room of sports industry representatives can’t and won’t be ignored. The metaphorical waves have left the Collinson Group London Office and are going out into the world.

Thanks to my brother Seb 💗

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