Sensing no change

WA’s largest stadium does not have a permanent sensory room. Photo: Jessica Evensen.

For the average Western Australian an outing to Optus Stadium almost guarantees fun and excitement.

But for people living with sensory disabilities, eager crowds and live entertainment can make excursions to the stadium overwhelming and stressful.

Twenty-six-year-old mother Sophie Coughran has autism and says she avoids attending events at Optus Stadium because the large crowds make her feel ‘stressed’ and like she ‘can’t breathe’.

The Wattle Grove resident experiences sensory overload, the overstimulation of the brain.

Dr Melissa Scott, an occupational therapy lecturer at Curtin University, says people with sensory overload cannot ‘switch off’ the amount of information the brain is taking in.

“Things like bright lights and loud noises can be so distracting and overwhelming for your body that they cannot focus on anything else,” she says. “Sporting games are so unpredictable. Sometimes the crowds can be so overwhelming when you’ve got so much noise and people touching and squishing you.”

“If I get overstimulated it will probably end in a meltdown,” Coughran says. “I will have to leave so it’s a waste. I just don’t go [to Optus Stadium].”

According to Autism Spectrum Australia, between 45 to 96 per cent of people with autism have sensory processing difficulties.

Sensory rooms, however, provide a solution for people with sensory disabilities.

Curtin University’s Dr Scott says sensory rooms support people with sensory rooms by helping people ‘step away.’

“It’s a way for an [autistic person] to reset their system and feel a bit more peaceful before they go back into the environment.”

Sensory rooms are quiet and peaceful, providing users with ease of mind. Photo:Jessica Evensen.

A sensory room is typically dark and quiet, and may include noise cancelling headphones and weighted blankets to aid in relaxation.

But despite having seating for more than 60,000 guests, Optus Stadium does not have a permanent sensory room.

In October last year, the Fremantle Dockers announced the club had been working with the Autism Association of WA to convert a team change-room into a ‘quiet sensory space’.

The room provides guests with bean bags, headphones and sensory activities.

However, the room is temporary and is only available for use during Dockers’ home games.

Without a permanent sensory space, Optus Stadium does not allow fans of other sporting teams to use similar facilities.

Sophie Coughran says she avoids concerts and games at Optus Stadium because there are no quiet rooms.

She says if the stadium had a permanent sensory space she would ‘definitely be more likely’ to attend events.

“I’d love to go to the footy,” she says, “But I know how intense that would be for me, so I just don’t go.”