Chesterfield FC continue to ‘lead the way’ in supporting families affected by autism, having this week played hosted to the launch of a charity walk.
The 21-mile Football4Autism walk is the idea of Inkersall dad Ray Watts and it will start at Rotherham United’s New york Stadium before visiting Sheffield’s big two and finishing at the Proact on 4th April.
Watts, whose seven-year-old son Jake is autistic, was inspired by Jeff Stelling’s Men United March.
Having already teamed up with Chesterfield FC on a number of projects, he approached them with the idea of involving the club in the walk.
“I saw Jeff Stelling do a walk for Prostate Cancer and having loved and played football all my life knew you could get a big audience to raise awareness,” he said.
“I spoke to Nick Johnson (CFC head of media) and John Croot (CEO, CFC Community Trust) last year about doing something for autism.
“They tweeted from the club’s account on World Autism Day and then they had a pop up sensory room at the Proact.
“It just went from there.
“I tried to get four of the local clubs involved.”
The Barnsley fan, whose wife Lisa is from Chesterfield, wants to make people more aware of autism, having endured some painful experiences out in public with his son.
And despite one in 100 people being diagnosed with the condition, he says it can still go under the radar, leading to insensitive comments.
“Our son is autistic, he was diagnosed at 15 months so we’ve been there, seen it and done it, had the good experiences and the bad,” he said.
“A lot of kids you can’t tell they’ve got autism, it’s not something you can see, a lot of people mistake it for naughtiness, misbehaviour and you get a lot of snide looks and comments.
“The walk is just to raise awareness of autism, what it is, how it affects people and families.
“It can isolate your family because you’re nervous about taking your child out if they can’t cope with noisy environments and stressful atmospheres.
“People can say things like ‘can you shut that kid up’ and you don’t want to go out.”
Watts hopes that people will welcome the walkers to the stadiums on the day and feel inspired to make donations to the walk’s partner charity, Autism Plus.
Seven-year-old Jake, described by his dad as a ‘happy young lad’ might even get involved.
““Jake might do a section of it, he has sensory issues with certain types of floor so sometimes has to be carried, but we’ll try to get him to do a little bit if possible,” said Watts.
Chesterfield FC Community Trust CEO John Croot said this was the kind of cause the club and the Trust could really get behind, having already earned national attention for their work to support families affected by autism.
“The club is always keen to support any community event, through the Trust,” he said.
“I’m really passionate that we use the club’s brand as a vehicle to engage and benefit the community.
“We find we can get to parts of the community that sometimes other more established organisations struggle with.
“Ray contacted us and we’re always happy to help where we can.
“He needed help with publicity and that’s one thing we can help with, so we had players at a couple of events and did the pop up sensory room for a match.
“The Premier League has called to ask how we did it, so it’s fantastic that we’re leading the way in England.
“This walk is a natural extension.”
Andy Girdham of Autism Plus says the involvement of a professional football club is a massive boost at a special time for the charity.
“It’s out 30th anniversary this year,” he said.
“We’re trying to get 30 different companies to step up and do some fundraising.
“This is huge, it’s going to get our charity name out to thousands of people who don’t know about us and the awareness we’re trying to create.”
The organisation supports adults and young people with autism, learning disabilities and mental health conditions, looking after 400 service users.
To get involved in the walk, visit the Facebook page HERE
To donate, click HERE