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Wisden Almanack 2023

Thinking outside the box: Cricket and autism – Almanack

Adam Gilchrist, Tasha Alach, Boyd Duffield
by Tanya Aldred 15 minute read

Tanya Aldred’s piece on cricket and autism originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

Cricket is half a broken locket. Find the other half, and you have your perfect whole. For thousands of people, the match-up is their autism.

The World Health Organisation estimate that one in 100 children is autistic, though the true number is likely to be higher; in the UK, around 700,000 are on the autistic spectrum. Autism is a lifelong disability that affects how people communicate and interact. Some autistic people need support to do everyday things such as washing or cooking; others can work full-time, with only a few adjustments.


Autistic children in the UK are three times more likely to be excluded from school than their peers. Engaging in sport can also be tricky: reasons include a lack of provision, differences in motor ability, and fear of social interaction. This leaves them deprived of the mental and physical benefits that come from exercise, as well as the opportunity to develop skills and bond with their community.

But cricket, it seems, has a key. The Autism Association of Western Australia started a programme four years ago, after families of children with autism encountered challenges when joining their local club. The information they had initially given on their child’s disability turned out to be held centrally for data purposes, but was not passed on, leaving clubs unprepared, and families disappointed.

After identifying this and other barriers to participation, and with the support of hundreds of children with autism and their families, AAWA partnered with the Western Australia Cricket Association, found some seed funding, and recruited the former Test wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist as an ambassador, and Boyd Duffield, an Australian cricketer with an intellectual disability. Autism in Cricket were formed.

“When we started, we understood the challenges for children with hidden disabilities, such as autism,” says Tasha Alach, the association’s director of therapy and clinical services. “We wanted to break down barriers to inclusion, so that kids with autism and their families, who are so often isolated, were able to go to their local club and feel included. But as we developed the programme, we realised cricket is such a great match for kids with autism. The sport has clear rules and expectations, there are opportunities for social interaction, like when waiting to bat, and it is not a fast sport. It gives the child time to think about how to play.”

Add scaffolding around that, and a child with autism can flourish. Autism in Cricket produce a fantastic array of visual resources (downloadable from their website, autism.org.au), including maps of fielding positions showing players where they should run and which boundary they should cover, training videos for coaches, and other material explaining what Alach calls “the hidden curriculum”. Even things as deceptively simple as writing the batting line-up on a whiteboard can help children who struggle to retain information. Being able to refer to it throughout the innings can be invaluable in reducing anxiety.

“A lot of other sports are too fast-paced,” she says. “Kids with autism have difficulty with executive function – where you’re trying to plan and execute movement quickly. In Australian football or soccer, you always have to be thinking ahead, and the changes happen quickly, so many kids with autism find it too challenging. In cricket, they have time to think and plan. They can have a clear role.”

In conjunction with the WACA, Autism in Cricket offer a hugely successful endorsement programme to every community club in the state, including help with the clunky registration process. They also liaise with the families, train volunteers and match kids to clubs – all without central funding.

Back in the UK, Metronomes CC are doing something similar, on a smaller scale. Set up in 2022 by cricket fans Bex and Michael Coleman, the team are named after the metronome that ticks in the bedroom of Jacob, their autistic son. The club have already played a fixture, and have more planned, as well as organising net sessions up and down the country while trying to find suitable clubs for autistic cricketers.

“We’ve got more and more wanting to join,” says Michael. “One of the players told me he hadn’t wanted to be part of a club because of social anxiety, but we understand that people need their own space, and that makes them comfortable. We’re fully inclusive, and we have no judgment on anyone. You get to see a different side to autistic people when you allow them to speak freely, rather than this constrained box we all live in. If we can just try and fit into their world, rather than expect them to fit into ours.”

For Jacob, cricket’s numbers are particularly appealing. Michael and a friend set up an Owzthat game on an Excel spreadsheet, played from computer to computer, and Jacob loves working out the percentage chance of each throw. He also adores the much-derided Hundred scoreboard, with the numbers coming down on one side of the screen, and going up on the other. James McCaghrey, whose Twitter biography reads “an autistic lad who loves maths, science and cricket”, is equally in love with the game’s statty side. Now 22, he didn’t come to it until his late teens, listening to TMS on his way to sixth-form college, then following it during a physics degree at Sussex.

“I am drawn to sports that are quite segregated,” he says. “Things like tennis and cricket appeal, compared with football, where for 90 minutes there is a lot of chaos, and my mind finds it difficult to focus.”

Communication can be tough: “My autism affects my social cues, the way I talk to people, and I often struggle to keep long conversations refreshed.” But cricket, particularly on social media, has given him an opening. He finds a real joy looking up stats before a game, checking if any records are due to be broken, and posting them on Twitter, where he has been treated kindly. He is now considering it as a career.

Andrew Edwards, who is 38, is another self-proclaimed cricket badger. He was diagnosed aged four, when the doctor told his late mum, Hazel Davies, to “go home and watch Rain Man. In all probability, your son will be institutionalised.” In fact, Edwards works for Your Space, an autism charity the Metronomes are supporting with a fund-raising game. He fell for cricket young, but didn’t really play until 2018, when he approached Chirk CC. He loves it there.

“Watching Chirk first team – it’s very much an escape. There are lots of nice people, and it’s not judgmental at all. Similarly, watching a Test match is one of my safe places, because a couple of hours can drift by, and any perceived worries can drift away.” Spending time at Chirk also frees up his sister, Melanie Beckley, his full-time carer. “She does my shaving, shopping, eyebrows, cooking, cleaning, ironing, washing – she’s everything to me.”

During the autumn lockdown of 2020, Adam Millichip – one of the teachers at Tettenhall Wood School for autistic children in Wolverhampton – set up a sports podcast to help students develop their communication skills. It has since won a global award, and the students have interviewed all sorts of sportspeople, including Adam Hollioake and Marnus Labuschagne. The interviews are intriguing – frank and funny.

Millichip has seen the magic cricket holds for some autistic people, both in its routine and in its stats. “For your more able people with autism, who are stereotypically intelligent with numbers, cricket is very attractive. I know a few autistic people who love to take a scorebook into the stands – there is something calming about that. You can note down, look back, see what happened when Jimmy Anderson bowled his third over. Autistic individuals are very visual, and the scorebook is beneficial for them.”

County cricket, with its sparse crowds, might have been designed with autistic people in mind, but Millichip believes there is potential for more help at the top level. Edgbaston has a sensory room – a refuge for people who might be feeling overwhelmed, with stimuli to help relaxation – and there was a temporary sensory cave at Headingley last summer. But other clubs lag behind.

“Sport brings lots of challenges for autistic individuals,” he says. “Humans in a sporting context can be unpredictable in their emotions, and top-level sport is particularly difficult because you’re so close to the person next to you – you’re touching them, you’re smelling them, you’ve got to engage in chit-chat with them. Then there’s the smell of the food, the people around you, the noise, the huge waves of cheering or singing.”

Cricket’s many adaptations are important too. The children at Tettenhall Wood enjoy table cricket, a tactical game played on a table tennis table, and have entered competitions run by the Lord’s Taverners.

Millichip recommends getting in touch with Richard Nurse, developer of the fabulous picturepath app inspired by his autistic son, Freddie. At first, Richard and his wife used PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) cards to help Freddie, but Richard brought the visual props into the 21st century. Picturepath allows users to make digital timelines, preparing autistic children and adults for what’s ahead, reducing anxiety and meltdowns. The app features guides to Sophia Gardens, the Middlesex outgrounds, and Lord’s, as well as non-cricketing venues.

“Autistic people have issues with change, and anything new brings distress,” says Nurse. “Every autistic person is different, but it is a constant issue. There is lots of black-and-white thinking with autism, so a good first experience is very important. We hope the app can also help people with anxiety and dementia.”

Not many 13-year-olds bowl leg-spin, or bat like Geoffrey Boycott, but Jacob Lunn is a cricket nut. At ten, he was selected for the Somerset pathway; despite enjoying his first year, he decided it wasn’t for him. He didn’t feel understood, and struggled with warm-ups, where he had to move his arms and legs at the same time. “All they know is cricket,” he says about some of his coaches. “They need to know about children with hidden disabilities.”

But all was not lost. He continued to play club cricket, and discovered Somerset’s disability team, where he immediately felt at home, taking part in the Lord’s Taverners Super 1s programme. “Disability cricket has been very welcoming,” says his mum, Sarah. “It feels like one big family. When he first started [mainstream] cricket, it was a bit difficult, because there is still a huge lack of understanding.”

Simple things can be done to make life easier. “Encouragement,” she says. “To start with, it was encouraging Jacob to communicate with the team rather than stand on the outside, and for them to listen to him. He also suffers terribly from anxiety, so just to let him walk away and chill out for a few minutes. But at the same time you want to make autistic people feel included, not different. It’s getting that balance right.”

The challenges most frequently come when Jacob is playing other teams, who don’t know him. “When he’s excited you know he’s excited, and when he’s annoyed you know he’s annoyed, but some people can take him the wrong way,” says Sarah. “We’ve had comments from the opposition, saying: ‘We don’t like that boy, because he’s loud and obnoxious.’ But he’s not – it’s just his passion.”

And that, breaks in Jacob, is why professional non-disability cricket is not for him, “because the opposition might work out that they could say something to put me off, and then I won’t play well, but in disability cricket the coaches are very understanding”.

He doesn’t have to look far to find some fantastic role models. Alex Jervis had a busy Christmas working as a catering assistant. He made his England learning disability debut in 2015, is a triple Ashes winner, and won the Lord’s Taverners Disability Cricketer of the Year award in 2021 for his work off the field. He has spent much of his life proving people wrong.

He has seen real change in disability cricket since Andrew Strauss first came in as ECB director of cricket. Suddenly they were getting not just the basic kit, but the extras, swim shorts, travel expenses. All they lack is a wage. “That would change everything, because a lot of us are trying to do all the professional elite stuff but working in full-time jobs, so we have to take annual leave to come to training. Some money would help – not necessarily a complete career out of it.”

He also hopes the Disability Premier League – a combination of deaf players, those with a physical impairment and those with a learning disability – continues to flourish, after the final was shown on Sky last year. “It’s rewarding to watch deaf players try and communicate with learning disability players,” he says. “The cricket is fun, and really good too.”

No diagnosed autistic cricketer has yet made it at mainstream international level. But the difficulties may not be insurmountable. Olivia Thomas, 18, who has a pay-per-play contract with Thunder in the T20 Charlotte Edwards Cup, was diagnosed at eight – young for a girl, since girls are often better at masking behaviour. School was difficult, despite her being a high-flyer.

“I got into quite a bit of trouble,” she says between gym sessions on a freezing December day at Old Trafford. “I always wanted to be in control of games and, if I got the answer, I would shout it out before anyone else. I didn’t have many friends, and didn’t understand why things I did weren’t appropriate. I didn’t have a filter. Cricket has been the single biggest thing in my life – the only place I’ve ever found where I fit in, I feel I can be myself, and people are here to support me.”

The high-achieving environment at Thunder also helps – all the young women are striving to be the best, unlike at school, where effort was seen as uncool. And the shared interest means no desperate search for small talk. There are difficulties, of course. Dealing with change and the unknown is hard. Olivia struggles with coaches thinking she can figure things out herself, and she sometimes takes comments too literally. But she has learned to adapt. The team at Thunder have also worked hard.

“All our players, and nearly enough all our staff, have been through an autism simulator, to learn what life is like through my eyes,” says Olivia. “Everyone really struggled. They had to give out loads of paracetamol, and I gave a chat on what life is like for me, how people can help. It meant so much to me. It showed how much people care. People knowing and understanding makes life easier for everyone. We can all just get on with it.”

She has grand plans. “If you look at the growth of women’s sport, it came about because of role models, and that is the next step. One of the biggest things I want to do when I retire is be that role model I never had.”

Cricket has a superpower. By its nature, it brings pleasure to many autistic people. With a twist here and a lean-in there, it can open its arms wider. Five hundred children with autism have started at their local club since Autism in Cricket formed, and Tasha Alach believes that many can play cricket with the right support: a liaison officer between club and family, flexibility, training for coaches and team-mates, visual aids. Above all, acceptance.

Tanya Aldred is a freelance cricket writer.

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