Kaine Sheppard grew up watching his autistic brother Jake fall in love with football. Now, the Newcastle Jets striker is using his status as a professional footballer to help other kids with autism do the same.
When the Jets host Adelaide United in Round 3 of the Hyundai A-League on Saturday, Sheppard will unveil an initiative from his charitable group - The KS Foundation - which he hopes will take off across the competition.
The KS Foundation Autism Sensory Room will be installed in a corporate box at McDonald Jones Stadium, providing families with autistic children a quiet, low-sensory space to bring their children to enjoy the game just like everyone else.
“People know of it more as a quiet room, or sensory room,” Sheppard told a-league.com.au.
“Sometimes the noise of the crowd, the lights and the atmosphere get a bit too much for (the children) so they need a place to relax.
“For the first one we’re looking at around four families just to kick it off. Their families, brothers and sisters, there’s a couple of grandparents coming as well who have a big influence in the kid’s lives.
“The Newcastle Jets have been really good and have allowed us to use a corporate box.
“We’ll have headphones in there for them... we’ll kit it with things for the children to enjoy which will just allow them to go in there and relax, just chill out.”
Sheppard grew up in England with older brother Jake, now 28, whose love of football coupled with the challenges he faced growing up with autism inspired Sheppard to use his position as a Newcastle player to impact the lives of families similar to his own.
“We started the KS Foundation around two months ago now,” Sheppard said.
“In terms of why I wanted to start it, I grew up in England with my brother who has autism and learning difficulties.
“Jake is my inspiration for it, he’s my number one fan. He’s got all my shirts from England and Australia all around his walls.
“He went to a special needs school and he’s been involved in disability football teams where we live at home.
“Growing up with him and seeing him grow and evolve... just seeing how much he loved and enjoyed (football) and how much he got from it I was quite excited to do something similar and give back.”
Sensory rooms are becoming more common in the sporting world with popular codes such as the NFL and NBA in America and the English Premier League creating permanent low-sensory facilities at venues around their respective leagues.
And it’s not an Australian first, either; the AFL, NRL and Super Netball have all created sensory rooms for autistic children in the past.
But Sheppard hopes this initiative from the KS Foundation will inspire similar facilities to be installed around the Hyundai A-League, with the intent to make those facilities permanent in the future.
“It’s definitely not a one off, this is just the first one,” Sheppard said.
“Our goal would be to have them all around Australia in the A-League. I think it needs to happen more than once, it’s such an inclusive program for the parents and kids.
“When you actually talk to the families you see how excited they are for it, how much they love their soccer and how much they want to watch games but sometimes they don’t feel like they can.
“I think to have it in stadiums all around Australia – not just for soccer but for other sports as well – I think it’s a fantastic thing. It’s great for the kids and the families.”
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Sheppard’s motivation to establish sensory rooms around the Hyundai A-League stems from the personal experiences he’s shared with his brother Jake, who grew up as a football fan but sometimes found it difficult to get involved.
“He loves football and he loves going, but sometimes it can get a bit much for him,” Sheppard said.
“He loves the idea, he’s looking at coming over (to Australia) in January so we’re hoping to have another one set up then so he can see what he’s inspired me to do.
“My family can see it too, so that’s exciting as well.”
Sheppard is currently continuing rehabilitation from a serious ligament rupture in his foot.
The 25-year-old is set to be sidelined until the new year, but through The KS Foundation Sheppard has found perspective and balance in life which is helping him make a significant difference in the lives of others.
“It’s never good when you have an injury, it happened at not a great time for me just before the season,” Sheppard said.
“Unfortunately it’s not something that happens a lot I’ve been told. I think a lot of players will tell you these days it’s good to have something else to concentrate on.
“It really takes your mind away from it essentially helping other families which is nice.
“We work so hard in rehab and everything like that, so it’s just nice to do something a little bit different, and give back.”
The KS Foundation Autism Sensory Room will be installed for the first time when Newcastle host Adelaide at McDonald Jones Stadium this Saturday, October 26, with kick-off at 5pm (AEDT).