Today's post is a short one, but no less impactful than the others.
It's a message we received from a former Netball player called Zoe (she didn't want us to use her second name). Zoe heard me talk on Catherine Asta's The Late Discovered Club Podcast, and as a late diagnosed Autistic woman, she felt compelled to get in touch and share her experience of sport with us... her short story is a sad reflection of how little attention is paid to neuroinclusivity in sport; how the landscape hasn't improved much over time, and how the few improvements to infrastructure have actually had an exclusionary effect.
"I’m 44 and recently diagnosed autistic. I played netball in my local league for two years. Loved it. They resurfaced courts (in a secondary school) and put new floodlights in. I honestly think it’s also a patriarchy thing too but the lights are horrific, surely designed for football, not looking up to shoot in a hoop. They are hideous. I cannot be around them, embarrassingly nearly threw up in first quarter before I had to come off. Haven’t been able to play since. Peaked caps banned by netball rules, sunglasses banned by netball rules. I cried so much to lose something I really enjoyed and felt so disabled by it. My daughter is not diagnosed but has also recently stopped wanting to go to her roller skating club because of new lights installed that are too intense. I’m finding new lights everywhere, especially new cars at night, so debilitating."
For me Zoe's story highlights a few things:
1) The unseen sensory sensitivities Autistic and other Neurodivergent people often suffer
2) The lack of progress in sport even though neurodiversity is being both recognised and addressed elsewhere in society (education, work, leisure). Zoe is in her 40s and her daughter is experiencing the same barriers to sport that she herself experienced.
3) Environments can be disabling, not necessarily conditions... Zoe and her daughter loved their respective sports, they wanted to participate, and they could participate with the masses if they were allowed to make reasonable adjustments - adjustments that wouldn't require the sport or anyone else to do anything (only to counter tradition...)
There's a lot of talk about combatting social exclusion when it comes to Autism, and for me, participation in mainstream sport and exercise could be an easy win in this regard! But it relies on sports clubs, teams and organisations recognising and accommodating for the unseen challenges Autistic and other Neurodivergent people face. When I say accommodating, it could be as simple as allowing someone to wear a hat on court OR not making them feel like an alien for wearing sunglasses in the gym (that's a personal gripe)!
This leads to my final observation:
4) The barriers to neuroinclusivity in sport ARE NOT physical for many Autistic and Neurodivergent people. They're not even social - many Autistic people find sporting environments easier to navigate because of their rules, structure, and reliance on actions over words. The barriers to neruoinclusivity ARE in fact man-made.
For me, tradition is the biggest barrier to neuroinclusion.
In most sports (some more than others), tradition is rooted in a time and place where participation and competition was both elitist and exclusionary, and they continue to have this effect to present day.
Therefore, if we want to progress in sport, I'm afraid we might have to break from tradition... because "without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible."