Autistic soccer fans can watch in comfort in Brazil stadiums

16-year-old Hamilton Moreira is a huge Corinthians fan who uses a wheelchair and has autism. He watched his first match in-person from the room on Sunday, and his mother says “he just loved” it

Luis Butti, a guide with autism spectrum disorder leads a tour group at the Corinthians soccer club Neo Quimica Arena in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Luis Butti, a guide with autism spectrum disorder leads a tour group at the Corinthians soccer club Neo Quimica Arena in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, April 12, 2023Andre Penner (AP)

Hamilton Moreira is a huge fan of Brazil’s Corinthians, one of the country’s top soccer clubs.

But the 16-year-old, who uses a wheelchair and has autism, never saw them in person until last Sunday after his mother learned of their stadium’s special room for people with autism. It’s built into the ninth floor high above one of the goals.

“He just loved this,” Ana Moreira, 53, told The Associated Press as she pushed her joyous and shrieking son out of the room and into the crowd after the Corinthians beat Cruzeiro 2-1 in a Brazilian championship match.

“Hamilton is a hardcore soccer fan, like the entire family. He watches until the very end, he celebrates with the players. It feels great to include him here,” she said.

The facility in NeoQuimica Arena is called a “sensory room,” designed to have a calming effect. It has noise-proof glass walls, special lighting, crayons spread on multiple tables, toys and food — all of which can keep occupants busy during matches.

Many Brazilian soccer teams are increasingly accommodating autistic fans by offering them free tickets, free snacks, hearing protection and sensory rooms.

Some people with autism find it difficult to deal with the roar of the crowd, or to be still for 90 minutes. Not so with Hamilton, who was hyper-focused on the entire match between the Corinthians and Cruzeiro.

He suffers from a rare, severe disorder called Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, which includes autism, and his mother previously was leery of bringing him to a game. However, things went so well that she wants to try having him watch from an open part of the stadium.

“Next time I want to take him to the wheelchair section. I think he can handle the noise,” she said.

Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella term for a broad range of developmental disorders that can involve widely varying degrees of intellectual, language and social difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. Brazil’s health ministry says as many as 10 million people in the country of 213 million are on the autism spectrum.

Though most Brazilian cities offer little accommodation for people with disabilities, many facilities for the disabled were built into the country’s soccer stadiums ahead of the 2014 World Cup, and some have been improved since.

The noise-proof facility at the Corinthians’ stadium was begun for the World Cup, became a full-fledged sensory room during the 2020-21 pandemic period and now is gaining wide use as the Sao Paulo-based club becomes a national standard-bearer for accommodating autistic fans.

Last year, a fan group named Autistas Alvinegros, or Black and White Autists, got permission to place their banner in a prime lower section of the stadium, always visible during TV broadcasts. The team’s veteran goalkeeper, Cássio, is the father of a 5-year-old autistic daughter who his wife posts about. And 41-year-old Corinthians fan Luis Butti has become a social media sensation with posts and podcasts about soccer, the team and his autism.

Even teams without their own stadiums have played a role. In the latest Rio de Janeiro state championship final, the Flamengo and Fluminense clubs arrived hand-in-hand with children with autism.

Sergio Cordeiro, 51, and a Corinthians fan, brought his 25-year-old son with autism, Pedro Roberto, to the sensory room at NeoQuimica Arena on Sunday even though the son is a fan of a rival team — the one his late grandfather favored.

Cordeiro said he’d like to change his son’s allegiance, but “it is hard to change the mind of an autistic person, and he is no different.”

“We came because of this sensory room; it’s great,” Cordeiro said. “My son is not very verbal. It is quieter here. I don’t know how he would handle it downstairs. If there were fireworks, it would be impossible to be with him here.”

“The autistic are becoming a nation of their own in Brazil. They are growing a lot and there’s few public policies to address their needs. Soccer clubs are doing their part,” Cordeiro said.

Some autistic fans can handle the noise relatively well, including 10-year-old Jean Lucca Alvarez, who wore an Autistas Alvinegros shirt and also came to the soccer stadium for the first time Sunday. However, he sat out in the stands with his mother, Amanda Alvarez, 44.

“We are here waiting for a goal. When everyone screams, if needed, we have hearing protection for him,” Amanda Alvarez said when the match was still 0-0. “Every staffer here was super prepared for him since we arrived. ... They point us to the right direction, help us.”

Jean Lucca, who asked to be interviewed by the AP, said his interest in soccer blossomed during last year’s World Cup in Qatar.

“It is so beautiful here. It is so cool. And there’s some very cool people here,” he said, seconds before Corinthians scored its first goal. “I am an autistic Corinthians fan. I am.”

Butti, the podcaster, also watches from the stands, where he has been given his own personal seat. He said his autism was diagnosed at 31 when he moved from the countryside to Sao Paulo. He now works at the stadium as a tour guide.

“When I got here to work no one talked about autism. It was not something mean, to exclude me. It just wasn’t a big topic for our society. It was a bubble,” Butti said. “Thank God that bubble has burst and now this is a topic for everyone.”

In the sensory room, some kids choose to play with small footballs or even watch cartoons if they tire of watching the game.

“I like this room because of the other autistic children,” said Ana Moreira, Hamilton’s mom. “This is a place of happiness. We need more of those.”

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