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“Not all disabilities are visible” is how the saying goes, and Spain’s Copa del Rey winner Real Betis is well aware. As the games run out, the Andalusian club has begun implementing an inspiring new measure. To improve their matchday experience, Betis is offering sensory kits to home fans with the developmental condition autism, and the service will resume when La Liga returns after the summer break.
Starting against Granada, its final guest this season, affected supporters will be able to obtain a free match kit from the club. These will include noise-canceling headphones and handheld items designed to relieve stress during games at the fervent Benito Villamarín stadium.
In providing this service, the team is honing in on a niche but important area of some supporters’ needs and something that deserves more attention in the sport, especially when you consider the vast number of people who watch live elite soccer throughout Europe during most of the calendar year.
People with autism—a lifelong condition—may struggle to socialize and feel overwhelmed by noisy, colorful scenes. According to the World Health Organization, approximately one in 100 children has it. Relate that to the soccer world, and there could be thousands upon thousands of discomforted autistic supporters attending games—or sadly choosing not to—all over the planet.
Indeed, although wheelchair user zones are commonplace in the elite game, for example, many others’ experiences are perhaps lesser understood. Soccer stands are often boisterous settings, which could trigger tension in people with autism. Although there is some awareness among clubs, such as in Mexico, it’s not as commonly discussed in the game broadly.
Attention tends to come in bursts, at least in Europe. During the awareness day in 2021, the top-flight Belgian Pro League organized for children with autism to attend games, aware that empty stadiums amid the pandemic would provide a fitting ambiance. However, such initiatives tend to be isolated rather than part of a blanket movement.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that autism exists on a spectrum, with some individuals more affected than others. There have even been suggestions among communities connected to autism that soccer genius Lionel Messi—the highest-earning athlete around—might have it, yet this is still unproven and unverified by the Argentine himself.
Interestingly, what garners more interest is the growth hormone disorder Messi had as a child, perhaps due to the financial toll it took on his family to secure treatment before he made it big in Barcelona and now at Paris Saint-Germain.
Whatever the case regarding the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, autism, like so many things, is part of soccer and more so than meets the eye. If so, clubs should consider similar arrangements to the one made by Betis. Assuming costs are achievable for professional clubs, it’s only a small price to pay for a happier fanbase, not to mention a bettered club image beyond the terraces.