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17 August 2021

Tim Musgrove’s family took part in the first Autism in Racing pilot event at Doncaster – he tells us about their experience.

We are a family of four; my wife and I have been together 17 years, and we have two children (William, 9 and Isabelle 5). Both of our children are autistic. William attends a specialist school and Isabelle attends a mainstream school. Both William and Isabelle are semi-verbal and both are “under sensitive”, this means that (unlike the stereotypical view of autistic children), they seek out sensory stimulation, they enjoy thrill rides, busy places and noise but can get overwhelmed by these things, too. 

The love of horseracing 

We love horseracing in our family, William insists that we watch it each Saturday on ITV. Grandad (my dad) calls us every Saturday morning with his selections and I pick mine, too – William and Isabelle like to help, also. We also have micro-shares in a few horses and enjoy tracking their progress as they grow and run.

The barriers facing children with Autism attending racing

A few years ago, we went to Cartmel races as a family for the day. This was a difficult trip, as at the time there were no initiatives like Autism in Racing in existence to cater for autism. Although William had some issues on the day he had fun, too. Ever since then he has spent a lot of time looking back at the photos and telling me that he was at the horse races. This is obviously a very key memory for him, and we have been very keen to take him back, but until this trial came along we had no way of being able to manage a trip.

We first learned of the initiative on seeing Bobby (Beevers) on the ITV Racing Opening show chatting with Oli Bell and the team. It immediately peaked my interest as going to the races as a family is something we have been very keen to do since our Cartmel visit. I therefore set about looking into it in more detail to see how the initiative would work and if it would help us overcome the barriers, which have been stopping us accessing racing as a family.

As awareness of how to help families with autism is still extremely mixed, we are keen to help any initiative we can to raise awareness and help accessibility for families with autism. Because of our love for the sport this seemed like a perfect fit. We were also very keen to see how this would work in practice, too, on a busy raceday.

One more sleep then horse racing 

We were excited and nervous on the raceday, William in particular was very excited, and seemed to understand where he was going. He went to bed the night before excitedly saying ‘one more sleep then horseracing’. The racing was in the evening so he had asked us quite a few times during the day of the visit, too.

On getting to the racecourse we were a little nervous as we had to navigate our way to the Autism in Racing unit, however, on finding Lucy, Bobby and the team, from that point on the day was absolutely perfect.

We had the sensory area which Isabelle in particular loved, with the various games she could play. The icing on the cake, and possibly the key to it being such a success for us, was having access to a quiet bar with the racing on the screens. Having this quiet area close to the main stand allowed us a base to retreat to in between the races. This allowed the children to balance their sensory needs well and gave us a safe and quiet area in the moments they were struggling and beginning to get overwhelmed. This really is the key in our experience of a successful day out.

Quiet area offered a retreat

We watched some of the races from our relaxed area and most of the races from the busy grandstand. The children were also very excited that we could get close to the horses coming out of the paddock but still stay safely being the barriers. The children loved the sensory horse keyring and the raceday programme provided to us in their goodie bag; they could look at the names, numbers and colours of the horses and play memory games. Numbers and lists are a special interest for our children and they are exceptionally good at memory games, another part of horseracing that appeals to our children.

We simply would not have been able to attend without this initiative, it allowed my children to access a sport that they love and to get close to these beautiful animals and feel the sensory vibrations of them running, hearing the noise of their feet, seeing all the colours and smelling the smells. Everything that most people take for granted at the live event that you simply can’t get watching on TV. The sensory profile of horseracing is unmatched in most other sports and is particularly exciting to many people with autism.

Future potential

The potential is wide-reaching, firstly for the sport of horseracing, but also as a lesson for the wider world in general. There is no reason why the same principles could not be put in place for other sports such as football or even music festivals and other events. 

In horseracing, specifically, I have seen posts on social media from people who are excited that this may be a possibility in the future at a track nearer to them.

As the incentive grows and the support grows, the facilities could too, for example the relaxed bar. If there was enough support, this could be staffed and sell drinks/food/treats and there could be a bookmaker for the adults attending. This would bring an extra income stream in for the racecourse and encourage them to offer staff training on autism awareness and help to fund / provide facilities at their events all the time, not just as a special “one-off”. 

Racing giving back

I believe very passionately that the world can be made more accessible for people with autism with, in most cases, very minor adjustments and a little bit of knowledge training. This incentive could be the driving force.

I have to give a large amount of credit to Doncaster Racecourse for agreeing to the incentive and also the other racecourses who are on-board, too. My perception of the sport itself has always been that there are many good people involved at most levels; it is great to see that autism is finally falling onto their radar and I truly hope that this can be sustained and grown quickly over the coming months and years. I would be delighted to help this to happen in any way that I can.

Autism in Racing is funded by the Racing Foundation – find out more about the programme here.

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