For those who are new to my blog and don’t know anything about me, a bit of background. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome – an Autism spectrum disorder – just over two years ago at the age of 41. Since then I’ve had to try and make sense of life in a whole new way; the diagnosis has made some things easier and some things harder. This post is about how being on the Autism spectrum has affected my life-long passion for ice hockey and, looking back now, the role that hockey has played in my life as a person with Aspergers.
If you were to tell someone that a person was on the Autism spectrum, one of the things they’d probably expect is that the person would have what are known in Autism circles as special interests, but most people would call obsessions with particular subjects. Although, like every aspect of Autism, it’s impossible to make general statements as each person demonstrates the various diagnostic criteria to a greater or lesser extent, I guess I’m pretty typical in this respect. There are certain subjects and interests that I am passionately keen on and if I like something like a singer, a series of books, a film or whatever then I am likely to know everything about it. One of these interests of mine is sport, particularly ice hockey, which I have been watching since I was 7 years old. My team is the Nottingham Panthers, and I’ve been a passionate supporter pretty much all my life and am still a season ticket holder today.
As far as I know, sport is not a really common Autistic special interest. I’m not sure why – I’ve read articles saying it’s because it has no “point” to it, being a fan of a team even if they are rubbish doesn’t appeal to Autistic people’s tendency to be logical and also because it is unpredictable (which for sports fans is one of the attractions). The last point is interesting. Another typical Autistic trait that is very strong in me is a liking for routines – one of the things most likely to cause me very high stress levels or even “meltdowns” is uncertainty, unpredictability or changes to routines or plans. So where does that fit with my love of hockey? Well, of course the outcome of a sporting fixture is unpredictable (my team’s wildly inconsistent performances for most of this season being a prime example), but there are many aspects of watching hockey that are routine. Matches have a given structure in terms of the playing time, the game has rules (which are sometimes even observed by players and officials) and there is not much that can happen in a match that I’ve not seen many times before. What’s more, I have my own seat in our stadium and matches start at standardised times (7pm on Saturday, 4pm on Sunday, 7.30pm midweek). Like many non-Autistic but superstitious fans I also have my match night rituals – always going in through the same door, getting foods or drinks from the same outlet at the same point in proceedings and so on. So there are still enough aspects that are sufficiently routine and predictable for me not to be outside my comfort zone.
Another aspect of sport that very much falls into “special interest” territory is the trivia and statistics that go with it. This is another area I love. As hockey is very much a North American style sport, stats are a big part of it and this element has always fascinated me. Not so much now maybe, when I have other things (scary, real life things) to occupy parts of my brain, but when I was a kid I was very much into the stats. I suspect that, then and now, most young hockey fans would cut up programmes and hockey magazines and stick pictures of favourite teams and players on their walls. My bedroom walls were covered in stats pages from Panthers programmes and Ice Hockey News Review issues and I can probably still reel off various stats from mid-80s British hockey – don’t worry I’m not going to. The same applies to trivia – who played for which team, when, how they did, the stories and scandals from around the leagues, results and scorers from big matches 20 or 30 years ago – I love the minutiae of the game. I appreciate that there are thousands of hockey fans who share this fascination and are not on the spectrum. I’m not suggesting they may be, just trying to explain why I think the sport provided a perfect outlet for the way my brain functions and especially the encyclopaedic memory that is one of the very positive aspects of my Aspergers.
So much for hockey being very much a special interest. What other impacts has it had on me as a fan with Aspergers? Firstly, it is one of very few activities that I can get totally engrossed in. One of the difficulties of living with Autism is that your brain is constantly buzzing, trying to process and interpret sensory input that most people’s brains just deal with automatically without them even noticing. Watching the Panthers play hockey is different – I am absorbed in the game and my brain is not off trying to process other information or turned inwards on analysing my every thought, word and action, as it is for pretty much the rest of my waking hours. Unless you are on the spectrum you will not be able to appreciate how important that is; you’ll have to trust me. To anyone living with someone with Autism, whether it’s a child, a partner, a friend, I say give them time to pursue their special interests because the benefit to our wellbeing and stress levels of tuning out of the sensory bombardment and into the interest for a couple of hours is one of our very best coping mechanisms. While we’re on the subject of sensory input, I have to say that I don’t have a problem with loud noise, which is why I love hockey matches and live music. I know lots of people with Autism do, so maybe I’m not so typical in that sense.
So I’m engrossed in my team’s match but what I also am at a hockey game is part of a community. This is the same for all sports fans and something they all value hugely. I wouldn’t say it’s more important for someone with Autism, just important in a different way. The thing is, even if you don’t have a diagnosis until your 40s like me, you always know that you are different from other people and you always feel like an outsider in a world that often makes very little sense. But not at a hockey game. Yesterday, when I was at Sheffield Arena cheering my team to a dramatic overtime win in the cup final, I wasn’t different – I was the same as all the other hundreds of people wearing Panthers shirts. As with the previous benefit I talked about, I cannot over-emphasise how incredible it feels for a person with Autism to feel, for once, that they are just like other people, part of something, and accepted because they wear the same shirt and support the same team. Not different, not weird, not on the outside looking in.
Social anxiety is another issue that often goes hand in hand with Autism. Typically for someone with Aspergers, although I have learned to hide it to some extent, I find social situations extremely daunting and will often feel sick and be in tears before I leave to go into such a situation, even somewhere I really want to go with people I know and like. Small talk is something I find completely impenetrable, and conversation generally is a minefield due to difficulties in picking up non-verbal messages. What hockey does for me is grease the wheels a little bit – before a match, during a match, after a match, online or face to face with other fans, the sport, teams and matches provide ready-made conversation material that you know plenty about and are interested in. Again, it’s something anyone with Aspergers would be grateful for to hides the difference you spend most of your time feeling and overcome the challenge you normally face in that kind of situation.
So I can talk to hockey fans of any team or even from any country about the game more easily than I can to most people, especially strangers. But what is even more important is that through supporting the Nottingham Panthers I have made some of my closest friendships. I just spent a great weekend away with friends I met through the hockey. We watch matches together, we have travelled to Germany to watch matches together, we talk about the game, we reminisce about the game, and we’ve even raised thousands of pounds through our hockey-based charity event The Rink Rush. I guess most hockey fans met friends or even life partners through the sport but as someone who has always found it very hard to establish close friendships, I know that shared interest and passion has helped me meet people who have enriched my life, when I might otherwise have struggled to build those bonds.
Finally, we come to something that may be a bit controversial but I truly believe is a benefit I have gained from being a hockey fan over the years, and that is what it has taught me about emotions. People with Aspergers or other forms of Autism are often accused of lacking emotional response, being unfeeling, and especially having no empathy. Like most, I find this completely untrue and rather offensive. We feel a full range of emotions, although we may process them and express them differently. As for empathy, it is hard but certainly nowhere near impossible. Personally, I actually tend to empathise to quite an exaggerated degree but I usually need to have seen or ideally experienced the relevant emotion first hand to do so. Where do we learn about emotions and how to deal with them? Many people (myself included) look to books, films and songs for examples to follow. But I’ve always been able to look somewhere else too – to hockey. Sport is all about passion and emotion, and being a fan of a team for 35 years means I have seen and felt them all – from the gut-wrenching disappointment of a big defeat, to the frustration of a terrible referee, to the anger at being cheated by underhand opposition tactics, to the satisfaction of victory, to the pride of a backs to the wall performance by your team, to the overwhelming release of a moment like our first league title in over half a century. Of course, I appreciate that these are only a shadow of the huge emotional impacts we experience in “real life” because of grief or personal achievements or our relationships, but seeing them and feeling them as a hockey fan has given me an understanding and empathy that I know I might otherwise have struggled to achieve. What I still struggle with is levels of emotion, in hockey as in life more generally. Our current coach, Corey Neilson, is often praised for his level-headed approach – never getting too high in the good times or too low in the bad times. Unfortunately that’s not me. Like Spinal Tap’s amps, my emotional gauge goes up to 11 but I don’t really have 1 to 10; it’s all or nothing, black or white. Which is why some of my hockey-related social media contributions, blog posts and even in-game outbursts can tend towards the extremes. So if you’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of reading or hearing one of my rants, I do apologise.
So what does all this mean? Looking back over my life, knowing what I know now after my diagnosis, it makes perfect sense why I got so into hockey, why it has held my attention for so many years and why it has been so important to me. Perhaps other hockey fans with Autism have different experiences and have taken other positive things from the sport, or maybe parents who take kids with Autism to watch matches are just at the start of a journey. What I do know is this. Yesterday at the cup final I stood in a crowd of people that I felt one hundred percent part of, I spent the best part of three hours with my brain focused on a hockey match not the million and one other stimuli it is usually battling with, and I shared an emotional experience with members of my family and some of my closest friends. And for someone with Aspergers, those are precious things.