There’s a lot of negativity written about football, some justified, some not, but much of it adding to a sense of ill-feeling about the game. Football can, however, be a force for good and this good can be found in some unexpected and unheralded areas. Here’s Jack Howes on how the game has helped him with his Autism Spectrum Disorder.

We have reached a point with football now where we’ve effectively reached a state of Bad News Saturation. We’re so used to hearing of corruption, mismanagement, greed and people with more money than morals ruining football that it hardly bothers us now. High ticket prices? Pah, people pay them so it doesn’t matter. Match fixing? Ah well, it’s only foreign teams that do it. Doping? Erm…yeah. Sepp Blatter running football? We can’t get rid of him so let’s just wait till he dies or is incapacitated. And as long as your team wins and the football you watch on TV every week is enjoyable, who cares?

This cynicism and pessimism about football is sad.  Not only because it doesn’t have to be like this, but because football can be a force for good, in so many ways. Whether it brings a son and a parent closer together, gets a troubled kid off the clichéd street corners into a healthier environment, helps the homeless, brings opposing troops together like it did that Christmas in WW1, or in my case, gave me a social life I would never have had without football.

I have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, or what was known until recently as Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s essentially high functioning Autism, but still has enough debilitating side-effects to make normal life very difficult. People with Asperger’s have severe problems with reading emotion, gestures, facial/bodily cues. This can make communication difficult, as they will talk over people, not understand why someone’s happy or upset, ask inappropriate questions etc.

Social faux pas and an inability to understand the rules of everyday life that aren’t spoken or spelt out for you are problems Aspergians deal with on a daily basis, particularly in their youth, as you can learn these unspoken things as you grow up, albeit slower than most other people. It also makes expressing yourself difficult, as often you talk in ways that make sense to you but not to other people, and can lead to you using garbled metaphors, malapropisms, being nigh on impossible to understand. It can also mean you don’t ‘get’ jokes, sarcasm, that you take things in literally and not metaphorically, as they were intended.

These effects culminate to make for some pretty miserable reading. Only 15% of adults with Autism are in full time employment, approximately 65% of Aspergians exhibit symptoms of other psychiatric disorders, struggles to form relationships and make friends are commonplace while rates of depression and obsessive behaviours are much higher compared to Neurotypicals (people with no discernible mental disorder, known as NT’s). However, Asperger’s also comes with many positives.  Aspergians generally have great memories, particularly to do with statistics and memories. Speaking from experience, as a child at primary school I would reel off names of capital cities, World Cup winners, Formula 1 world champions, obscure old footballers.

An example of this is when in my early years at secondary school, I was told there was an Arsenal fan who knew ‘everything’ about his team. So, having recently read Fever Pitch, I asked him ‘who did Arsenal lose to in the 1969 League Cup final?’ Everyone’s expression in the class went blank. I then asked him ‘who did Arsenal lose to in the 2000 UEFA Cup final?’ – no one knew that either. Also at school I briefly became famous because I was able to guess what everyone had in their school timetables. Without any meaningful effort, I could remember which group every individual person was in, and hence what lesson they had and when. People would occasionally gawp at me when I could tell them they had Science period five on a Tuesday when I wasn’t in any of their classes. People with Asperger’s are also very loyal, can be brilliant problem solvers, and are often fine mathematicians and scientists.

In my case however, for all the positives that Asperger’s brings, it has led to many problems in my life, especially to do with forming relationships with people. It’s not just natural shyness, but a fear of engaging with people. On more than one occasion, when I was involved a conversation I wasn’t comfortable with, with people I didn’t know, I have literally ran away from the poor sod trying to talk to me, such was my desperation to escape. I’ve always largely being by myself to being with others, and always will do.

I have one thing to thank for me having any social life at all, getting me out of my house, and allowing me to make some friends and not be a complete loner. That thing? Football. Without football, I’d be nothing. From as long as I can remember, football has allowed me to ingratiate myself with others when without it I would never have done so. From the age of five, I was playing football with other kids on my street. I was always the youngest. We would play in the road, getting out of the way when cares approached, shots constantly ricocheting off car and living room windows.

This wouldn’t bother us, apart from when a shot would fly into my neighbour’s front garden. My neighbour, an elderly male called Bill, hated us. He would refuse to give us our ball back (if we hadn’t dashed into his garden and got it before he noticed) and generally tell us off. This was OK, but when he threatened to call the police when an errant shot knocked over one flower pot, it became mildly disturbing. When he subsequently told Turkish friends of mine to ‘go home where you came from’, my dad and their dad came out to confront him and give him such a volley of verbals that my mum feared Bill was about to have a heart attack.

Anti-social we may have been, but I loved those days, playing football for hour after hour. Very occasionally we’d play cricket, but when my friend Adam went three entire days without getting out, everyone mutually decided to call a halt. It may have been dangerous, but I was glad of the companionship and the chance to run around and replicate what I saw on Match of the Day every week.

After a few years, playing in the road moved to playing on a small field up the road from my house. Again, hour after hour was spent playing football. I shared little, if anything with the people I played football with. I was still younger than the others. By the time I was 10 or 11, everyone else was 13 or 14. I remember being asked by one of these kids once if I’d seen a woman’s breasts. I for the life of me couldn’t understand why anyone would ask such a thing. Sex talk would fly over my head, as would talk of stuff not about football. When this occurred, I would always ‘have to go in for my dinner’, even though that was always a lie. If Asperger’s has helped me with anything, it’s helped me how to weasel out of uncomfortable situations.

At school, football was a life saver. I went to special needs schools till I was eight years old, owing to me being born with a cleft lip and palate and hence having severe problems with my speech. I may not have been able to talk clearly, but when I started playing football with other lads, a great pass and coolly slotted home finish did the talking for me in a way actual words could never do. While I was at Whitefields school in Walthamstow, there were two separate playgrounds – one for older children, one for younger children. I was given special permission to play in the older children’s playground despite being too young, simply so I could play football.

When I eventually went to mainstream school, football again was a saviour. I spent my first few weeks walking round the playground at break and lunchtime on my own, with no one to play with. But when classmates started kicking a ball around and I was sucked in to a game of football, there were people I could talk to and be friends with.

At secondary school, again it was the same, loneliness becoming something better than loneliness when I managed to get involved in games of football with people. And it isn’t just playing football – it’s talking about football. I’ve always had different interests to most people my age, never understanding why things are popular, why things are unpopular, what are the current trends, what aren’t. I never liked rap or r’n’b like others at school did (or pretended to), had any liaisons with girls or went on nights out. I didn’t spend hour after hour playing Call of Duty and Medal of Honor on Playstations and Xbox’s. I was always behind the curveball. Football was usually the only thing I could confidently talk about with others. And football was my subject, something I felt no one could touch me on.

I was lucky that wherever I was, people were always willing to play on football. Growing up in a lower middle class North London suburb (Enfield) where football was everywhere was a big help. Also at school, there were always a core group of kids mad about the game. Even in the 6th form, when in other years people would eschew football to do other things ‘cooler’ than running around getting sweaty, dirty and muddy, there would be a group of us having matches in the local park at lunchtime, whatever the weather. I have to be thankful for that.

The beauty of football is its simplicity. You don’t need goalposts, hockey sticks, cricket bats, rugby balls. You just need a spherical object, not even necessarily a football. Tennis balls, those plastic balls you see in children’s play areas and crèches, even netballs can suffice. And for goals, there are always clothes that can be used to mark out a goal. I’ve seen supermarket trollies, upside down bikes, tyres, twigs, even a front gate that had come off its hinges, used as goalposts. A game of football can break out anywhere, any time. This is why it’s so popular, and why it can be such a force for good.

Being Autistic has also enhanced my passion for the game. Those with Autism like routine and can become stressed when things don’t run according to plan, to the point panic attacks and/or tantrums can become regular occurrences Well, football being on the telly every week provides as good a routine as any. Also a sport with so many stats and which relies on league tables, like football does, is great for me. I can read and study league tables for hours, in a state of bliss.

Football has been a massive force for good for me. It’s enabled me to form friendships and relationships that would otherwise have been denied to me. Its why, however low the professional game stoops, I will always be thankful for its existence and pre-eminence over other sports where I grew up.

Football’s the best sport in the world. Let it always be so.

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