Leo McKinley 10, Jake Sheppard (Kaine's brother) & Matthew Fuenzalida photographed in the autism sensory room at McDonald Stadium Newcastle on Friday, 10 January 2020. Newcastle Jets have established an autism sensory room at their games. ( IMAGE / MONIQUE HARMER)
Leo McKinley 10, Jake Sheppard (Kaine's brother) & Matthew Fuenzalida photographed in the autism sensory room at McDonald Stadium Newcastle on Friday, 10 January 2020. Newcastle Jets have established an autism sensory room at their games. ( IMAGE / MONIQUE HARMER)

‘It’s a godsend’: Huge praise for football’s great innovator

At 18, Matthew Fuenzalida had always wanted to go to a game of football, but never felt that he would be able to cope.

 

On the autism spectrum, Matthew can find the world completely overwhelming.

 

But on a Saturday night at McDonald Jones Stadium, Matthew is watching Newcastle Jets go on the attack and is part of the crowd in a way he never felt would be possible.

 

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Leo McKinley, Jake Sheppard and Matthew Fuenzalida in the sensory room.
Leo McKinley, Jake Sheppard and Matthew Fuenzalida in the sensory room.

What Matthew's mum, Leith, calls "a godsend" is the work of Jets striker Kaine Sheppard, whose love for and pride in his autistic brother Jake inspired him to create the A-League's first sensory room at every Jets home game.

 

Between six and eight families are invited to each game, gathering in a corporate box provided by the club that Sheppard has equipped with food, toys, art materials, quiet spaces and even noise-cancelling headphones.

 

In his words, it's all designed to let the children "chill out" when the atmosphere gets too much for them, and means the Jets games are as inclusive as possible.

 

 

 

Setting up the KS Foundation to pursue this and other opportunities gave Sheppard something to tackle during four months of injury last year, and the whole thing is funded by Sheppard and his partner Jo, plus his friend Evan Markogiannakis.

 

"The first few times we had the room, I was injured so I was able to be in there, and to see the smiles of the faces of the families has been amazing," Kaine said.

 

"My brother Jake came to all my games in the UK growing up, and he's my No.1 fan, but to be honest he inspires me more if anything."

Jake Sheppard with his mother, Jo, at the Jets game.
Jake Sheppard with his mother, Jo, at the Jets game.

Jake now works as a landscape gardener in Britain, but on this particular occasion he and the brothers' parents, Mark and Sharon, are actually in the sensory room, having flown over from the UK for a holiday.

 

"It's a great honour to put this on for all the families, but to have mine there as well was a bit emotional," Kaine said, "just watching Jake chatting to the other people there."

 

Among them, Matthew Fuenzalida is taking it all in, helped by the familiar toys to hand.

 

"He's always wanted to come and watch a game of soccer but never felt that he could," said his mum, Leith.

 

"This was just a godsend. Kaine has met Matthew twice now, he always remembers him and Matthew thinks the world of him.

 

"It's a massive undertaking and Kaine has done it all off his own bat."

Kaine Sheppard got the scoresheet on a special night.
Kaine Sheppard got the scoresheet on a special night.

Sheppard is keen to praise the Jets for providing a corporate box and tickets for the families, but what he would love is some support from the corporate world - not just to fund the room, but also to look at projects for getting autistic young adults into work, just as Jake has been able to do.

In the meantime he is working on expanding it across the league - starting with Melbourne City, who will this weekend stage their own sensory room for the first time.

"Kaine's inspired by his older brother and their love for each other is just amazing," said their mum, Sharon. "Jake is over the moon to be here watching him play.

 

"To be here and see what Kaine has set up, I don't think Jake quite realises he's the inspiration behind this, that Kaine has done this because of him."

 

To cap it off, Kaine then comes off the bench, much to his brother's delight.

 

"I love him, I'm so proud of him for what he does here, and proud of what he does on the pitch," said Jake.

 

"And," he says, gesturing around the room, "it's special for all these people here."



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