I write this while having a bad autistic day. Sometimes on a bad day my body and mind feel so drained I am unable to do anything, even getting up off the sofa seems too difficult. I never know for certain when one of these days will come, although there are certain events that will almost always bring it on, such as going to a new place, unexpected socialising, or a particularly challenging week at work. As you can imagine, the propensity of these bad days makes it hard for me to hold down a regular job, although, as an experienced teacher, I certainly try.
At this point, you may wonder why you are reading about the struggles of an autistic person trying to navigate adult life in a cricket blog. Well, that’s because I believe there is a unique bond between autism and cricket, one that has never really been explored.
Think about it, the in-depth statistics, and the ability to memorise and immerse oneself in them endlessly, the certainty and predictability of the bowler running up and bowling to the batsman over and over, the comforting rhythms of a day’s play and the chance to get lost in it for hours on end, all of these things are ideally suited to the autistic brain.
Now, in saying that I am acutely aware that all autistic people are different and none of our brains work in exactly the same way. As the saying goes, “when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person”. For some, cricket may be an anathema to them but I can only speak about how my mind works and my own personal autistic experience, one I believe many may identify with. I even read of an autistic person on Twitter who, upon attending their first Test match exclaimed “This is the most autistic thing I have ever seen!”
There are many reasons why cricket is the perfect sanctuary for my autistic mind. Like many other neurodivergent people, I have a love of numbers. Cricket provides endless statistics for my enjoyment and every year they are preserved in a big yellow book for me to pour over to my heart’s content. I cannot overstate the autistic joy of, for instance, looking up the all time 7th wicket partnership for England against South Africa in the Wisden Almanack. I remember regaling my non plussed PE coach with Don Bradman’s famous 99.94 batting average as a teenager and being surprised when I realised he had no idea what I was talking about
We autistic people can feel an intense joy when it comes to taking a deep dive into a topic we enjoy. Indeed, there is even a term for it, “special interests”, which means an intense liking of something until it becomes a sanctuary from the confusing world around us, a passion for a particular topic that neurotypical people can never understand.
You see, the world is a very confusing place for me. It is pointlessly busy, full of people rushing around for no purpose that I can understand. It is almost incessantly loud and noisy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike all noise, I regularly go to football matches where the crowds are far louder than cricket, but I struggle to cope with pointless noise, for instance loud music played incessantly through speakers or over tannoy systems. I also cannot read social cues which makes the actions of my fellow humans completely impossible to predict and thus the whole experience of social interactions with them becomes a fairly alarming and confusing process which fuels a constant sense of anxiety in my head that never goes away.
To cope with this, I have safe places in my mind that I can go to when the world gets too much and one of these is cricket. Cricket is my escape from the confusion of the world around me and has been since I discovered it while channel hopping on a slow Saturday afternoon at 11 years old. The county game, in particular, offers me sanctuary with its sedate pace, smaller crowds and grounds and most importantly, lack of change, change being one of the most difficult things of all for my autistic brain to process. As a child I loved going to see Surrey play at the charming little outground of Guildford and now I seek out similarly quaint and smaller places such as Chelmsford and Wantage Road. I like to sit in my seat and imagine a similar game at any time in the last 150 years. I take great joy from thinking that the scene in front of me could be being played out in Victorian Britain, the 1940’s, 70’s or 90’s and, apart from the numbers on the back of the shirts and larger sponsors logos, you would not be able to tell it apart from the present day
Wandering around Wantage Road, I also couldn’t help but notice how much like me many people seemed to be. For once, I didn’t feel out of place or that I stood out from the crowd. Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that most cricket fans are autistic but I think the sport certainly attracts more of us than many other walks of life. Sometimes, I like to sit looking at the older people around me, thinking about how many of them might be like me but were just missed growing up in a generation where diagnosis simply wasn’t a thing. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that autism diagnosis for high functioning adults became mainstream.
I recently plucked up the courage to buy a ticket to see Birmingham Bears (or Warwickshire as I still call them) playing Essex in the T20 Blast quarter finals. However, when it came to the day I couldn’t quite bring myself to go, leaving my ticket unused on my computer. I could just about cope with going to a new ground, I’ve never been to Edgbaston before, but only for four-day Championship games. The thought of the noise at a T20, the loud, tinny music blasting out of speakers incessantly after every boundary or wicket, was too much for me. I have only ever attended one T20 ground and that was in the summer of 2003, the first season of the T20 Cup when games were played at sleepy outgrounds.
My young son, who is also autistic, faces a similar issue. This summer, inspired by the thrilling Ashes series, he took an interest in the game for the first time. He also enjoyed watching the Hundred, picking a team to support based on his favourite flavour of crisps (Pombears in case you were wondering) and got very excited whenever they were on TV. I contemplated putting my own misgivings about the competition aside and taking him to a game. After all, tickets were affordable and there were grounds in easy distance from where we lived. However, I knew instinctively that I couldn’t. The endless deafening blasts of music from speakers dotted all over the ground, the half time DJ’ing and concerts would have all been too much for him. He would have been burying his head in his hands and asking to go home within 20 minutes and I wouldn’t have been far behind him.
Recently, some counties have begun recognising the needs of neurodiverse fans in an increasingly noisy game and making significant progress in the area. Surrey have introduced a sensory room for autistic children at the Oval for T20 Blast games this year and other counties are following suit. However, for myself and many others the beauty of the four-day game is that it doesn’t need sensory rooms. It is a calm port in the storm of life all by itself. As cricket relentlessly continues its’ march of progress it is in danger of losing the thing that attracted some of us to it in the first place. To me, cricket is my escape from the modern world, I certainly don’t want the game to become more like it. It is the place we go to gain refuge from the noise and confusion, an unchanging oasis of calm and certainty.
As T20 takes over the world and traditional cricket becomes marginalised I sometimes fear losing what I have but then I tell myself that whatever else changes and regardless of how many confusing franchise tournaments spring up, there will always be a Wantage Road, a Chelmsford or a Guildford, places where no matter what else I am dealing with, I know the bowler will begin their run up, run in and bowl to the batsman, the rhythms of life will be restored and my head will be calmed.