As I start to write this my youngest boy is watching a replay of Lincoln at MK Dons last season on YouTube, writes Sam Stafford.
Lincoln are not at home to AFC Wimbledon today because the country has ground to a halt and all live sport has been suspended. He is quite happy though. I can tell that he is happy because he is singing the West Ham anthem ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ to himself, which he has done since he and I went to see West Ham earlier this season. He has always hummed and sung to himself when he is happy.
Looking back, that MK Dons game was a very big one. For Lincoln, a gritty win, sealed in the final stages with a second goal in front of an ecstatic travelling support of over 4000, all but secured promotion from League 2. For me, it was a big boy’s day out. My wife was away that weekend celebrating her 40th birthday and so I took both boys on the train. For Youngest, whilst it was his third football match, it was his first outside of the relative calm of a family stand and I vividly recall the moments after that second goal when he became visibly overwhelmed. I took a moment to ask myself if I had done the right thing in bringing them. It was the first time that his senses had been exposed to a collective outpouring of emotion from a crowd like that. He was not upset, but he did calming for a minute or two afterwards. I think that that moment was actually quite pivotal for him.
Eldest was really into trains for a while, but that passed, and then he got into football. I wrote about his football awakening previously because it coincided with Lincoln’s reawakening. He still comes to the odd match (and stadium tour), and he plays on a Sunday, but he is quite happy in front of the PlayStation most of the time now. He went with his Mum to the theatre when his brother and I went to tick off the London Stadium on our visit to the capital. When Youngest came along he, like most younger siblings, copied whatever his brother was into. Youngest really, really liked trains, but that hobby disappeared almost overnight and he got interested in football. Well more than interested. Really, really interested. In fact, Youngest was obsessive about trains and is now obsessive about football. As we suspected, and has now been confirmed, Youngest actually has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
If you met him you would find him, as we know him, to be the sweetest, kindest little boy imaginable, albeit perhaps more self-contained and self-assured than other seven year-olds. If you were to meet him though it would be best for me to let him know that in advance because he is not one for spontaneity. There was an occasion this season when our weekend plans changed and he and I had the chance to go to The Shay, our nearest ground, for his first visit there. It was a Saturday morning though and because he was not prepared for it he declined. If I had of asked him on, say, the preceding Monday, he would have snapped my hand off. If you do get to meet him he will probably be wearing one of his many football kits. Whatever the weather and whatever the occasion.
ASD has a number of diagnostic criteria such as social communication, social interaction, flexibility of thinking and sensory sensitives. During an assessment process a doctor might also look for what current thinking suggests are the three theoretical underpinnings, which are mentalising (the ability to understand that others have different intents, beliefs are desires); executive functioning (planning, organisation and decision making) and central coherence (an eye for detail but perhaps missing the context).
Most people probably display at least one of these behaviours (I know I do), but to be diagnosed, as I understand it now, somebody is probably displaying traits of pretty much all of them. We have suspected for while that a diagnosis was probably inevitable at some point. His quirks have been apparent since he started doing a few half days at nursery, but it was the discombobulation of the move from Class 1 to Class 2 that convinced us to formalise things. Serendipitously enough, whilst all of this was in my mind and we were exploring a diagnosis last August, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the rows in front of us at Rotherham, which was Lincoln’s first away game (he comes to every game I can get to now). I am not sure what went on, but a woman turned around and said to the person behind her ‘He can’t help it. He’s autistic.’
It has been in my mind to write something about his ASD and football since then. Firstly, I wanted to document his blossoming relationship with football in the same way that I did with his brother three years ago. Eldest’s current relationship with football is probably best described as amicable. They like each other and are happy to spend some time together. Youngest’s relationship with football is all-consuming. It is no exaggeration to say that football is all he thinks about.
That would probably be the case regardless of what had piqued his interest. It was trains previously. It might have been something else. I suppose that it might yet be something else. The attraction of trains might have been the rigidity and certainty of timetables and the chance to dive into the detail. The top speed of that one, the number of stations on this line, and so on. He is, for a 7 year old, phenomenal at maths and his memory is remarkable. I am pretty sure that not only has he memorised the facts and figures on his Man City Top Trumps, but, when we play, he is counting cards and knows when I am about to play the cards that he has given me. Even before watching it again on You Tube he could probably have reeled off the Lincoln team that played at MK Dons that day. He could probably reel off the Lincoln team that played at Rotherham, who scored, and when they scored. I have usually forgotten before we get back to the car.
He lives in quite a binary, black and white world. He likes rules and facts and structure. If you are an adult and you can talk about football then he has got something to talk to you about. If you are a child and you can talk about football then you will probably get an invite to his football birthday party (he only wants football parties). There is a universality to football though (compared to trains at least), which makes me glad that football is his thing. Most people can hold a conversation about football, which means that he can at least find a way of conversing with most people. As well as facts and figures, of course, football has plenty of room for nuance, which is another reason why I think it is good for him. Your team does not always get what it deserves. Their unlucky equaliser. Our lucky winner. I wonder how those fans are feeling? I wonder how that player is feeling? I hope that football can help him see that life is not always black and white.
The second reason for wanting to write something was whatever went on in front of us at Rotherham that day (possibly an even better, grittier away performance than that MK Dons). I had never really thought about the matchday experience of people with ASD until I started taking Youngest and my guess would be that not many people do. He is very good and very used to crowds now, but he does not respond well to sudden loud noises and so, if given a choice, we will always head to a family stand. He has a little quirk though whereby he likes to get in and know where we are sitting, but, regardless of when we get into the ground, he will want to go to the toilet five minutes before kick-off so as to be sure in his own mind that he will not be forced to miss anything. That might mean that we disrupt everybody else on the row to get in and then disrupt them again a couple of minutes later to get out and then again a couple of minutes after that to get back in. He is not being a pain. He is not being awkward. That is him.
The ‘memories’ of that trip to MK Dons appeared on my Facebook timeline this morning so I know, as I finish writing this a week, that it is precisely one year ago. This not quite the story of a season then (or is it? has the season finished? when will it finish? who knows), but it has been quite a turbulent twelve months for Lincoln. In the same way that I will always associate watching the start of the Cowley era with Eldest, I will associate watching the end of it, and that brilliant signing-off win at Huddersfield in the Carabao Cup in particular, with Youngest. To say it has been up and down since would be something of an understatement. Onwards and upwards though.
Onwards and upwards. Youngest and I have seen lots of football over the last twelve months and are lifting each other’s spirits during this hibernation period by talking about where we would like to go and see matches next. I have got him a map from myfootballgrounds.com to tick off all of the grounds that he has been to so far. He is up to about twelve in this country now. We have not put it up yet though. He has still got his train pictures up. He deals with change in his own way.
I suppose that that, people doing things and supporting teams in their own way, is the main point that I wanted to get across in writing this. If you go and watch Lincoln, or indeed anybody else, or indeed you do not watch football at all, it is worth bearing in mind that, according to the National Autism Society, there are 700,000 autistic people in the UK, which is about 1% of the population. That does not sound a lot, but in a packed Sincil Bank it means that there could be about 100 autistic people. We all look the same from the outside so there is no way of knowing whether the man next to you at the turnstile; or the woman queuing for a burger; or the little boy who wants to go to the toilet five minutes before kick-off is autistic, but they might be so please just keep that in mind. The world, let alone a football ground, would be a better place for a little more kindness and a little more patience.