Airdrieonians are to become the first football club in Scotland with a sensory room at home games, allowing children with Sensory Process Disorders such as autism to attend matches in comfort.
The official launch of the facility will be at the top of the table clash with Livingston on 18 February.
The sensory room is the brainchild of the club’s commercial manager Dougy Allsop and one of the Youth Academy coaches Stevie Burr. Stevie has a son with autism and approached Dougy to see if anything could be done.
Only a few weeks later, with the help of the Supporters’ Trust and other fans, Airdrie will open The Diamond Sensory Room.
Dougy said: “The club have worked with the Trust and the stadium owners on several projects to make football in the town more accessible for everyone. Sammy’s Shelter, opened a couple of years ago for wheelchair users is probably the most high profile example of this to date.”
The Trust also funds free season tickets for children in the area, in conjunction with the KitAid charity, where tickets are exchanged for unwanted strips that are then sent to some of the poorest countries in the world.
Dougy added: “The Diamond Sensory Room will build on our ‘Football for Everyone’ programme, and provide a safe and comfortable place for autistic children and their carers to watch home matches.”
As part of the planning, Stevie and Dougy approached Premiership giants Watford and Sunderland (two of only three clubs in Britain to have such rooms) for feedback and advice.
Peter and Kate Shippey from Sunderland launched a campaign in their home city to provide a similar facility in the Stadium of Light, before setting up the Shippey Campaign, a charity aimed at encouraging all clubs throughout Britain to set up such rooms. Their support and advice on sources of funding has helped steer the project at Airdrie, and both will be guests of honour at the game on Saturday and will officially open the room.
Kate said: “We’re really thrilled that Airdrie are going to be the first club in Scotland to have a sensory room. We really appreciate them involving us in this, they’re amazing people in an amazing club and we can't wait to meet everyone.”
Her husband, Peter, added: “It’s a massive honour to open the room, we never expected that. It’s very humbling. Let's get Airdrie on the map, with being the first club in Scotland to do this. Great work everyone!”
While some equipment has already been purchased, the aim is to raise £10,000 to install specialised accessories in the room. The trust is funding some of this money, while the project team are exploring grants, sponsorship and donations.
Indeed, some of the fund raising events are worthy of a story on their own. A-list celebrities Ricky Gervais and Mark Hammill have signed Airdrie strips to help raise cash, and are currently on eBay. Tom Hanks, William Shatner and Eric Idle are some of the others who have strips on the way.
The forward-thinking Trust are also hosting three concerts in the town, including a Justin Bieber tribute in the Town Hall on June 11th, Scottish Rocks band in the Airdrie Workmen’s Club in April, and a Little Mix tribute on November 24th. Some proceeds from these will go towards the room.
Airdrie fan Mary Brogan has also set up a Justgiving page, and is encouraging anyone who can to make a donation. Mary and her son Arran benefitted from the generosity of the Airdrie fans last year, when they came together to create a dream garden for Arran.
She said: “Yet again our wee club is proving it has a big heart, by providing vulnerable members of the community with the support they need.”
“Huge thanks go to the club and stadium company, who are forfeiting valuable money by giving up one of the hospitality suites for the sensory room. It proves once again that when money is not the only driver, football clubs can play a valuable role in the community.”
Dougy added: “We are delighted to be the first team in Scotland to open such a facility, and hope that what we have achieved can be replicated at clubs big and small throughout the country. BT have set up funding for English Premiership teams, but it’s something that can and should be replicated across the board.”
Majella Hope is the Senior Group Worker for Sports, at the Hope for Autism Group in Airdrie. She is relishing the opening of the room, and added: “The setting up of The Diamond Sensory room will enable local families to enjoy some quality time together in an environment that supports young people with Autism.
"Football matches for young people with Autism can be a daunting experience - noise levels, crowds and the unpredictability of the game all have the potential to cause Sensory Overload.
"Being able to view the game from an Autism friendly box would ensure young people have the opportunity to attend games in a more comfortable environment and allow them to experience the joy of football something many families have not experienced together before.
"This is a fantastic projects will really does encompass the idea of 'Football for everyone'.”
Excelsior Stadium have assisted the club and Trust in the project, and boss Paul Hetherington said: "Excelsior Stadium are very happy to support this project alongside AFC as encouraging as many kids as possible to support their local team will always be a priority.”
Capacity of the room will be restricted to 10 children and 10 parents/carers. Bookings will be taken in advance as demand is anticipated to be high, and enquiries should be directed to both email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
Members of the Press are invited to attend the official opening of the Diamond Sensory Room at 2:30pm on Saturday afternoon. Please contact the club in advance.
Further information can be found at the links below:
The Diamond Sensory Room - Facebook
The Shippey Campaign
The Shippey Campaign - Facebook
Airdrie shirt signed by Ricky Gervais - eBay
Airdrie shirt signed by Mark Hamill - eBay