Sports leagues, teams amplify autism outreach

  • Staffs at more than 80 sports venues worldwide have received dedicated training on inclusion for fans with sensory needs.
  • Dedicated rooms for autistic children and adults and others with sensory needs becoming commonplace
  • Many teams offering special bags outfitted with items such as noise-cancelling headphones, weighted lap pads, and fidget toys

The staff for minor league ice hockey’s Cleveland Monsters thought they were prepared four years ago when they scheduled a special game for autistic youth often unable to handle the sensory overload of a typical pro sporting event.

They could not have been more wrong.

When a security guard tried to remove a device worn by a non-verbal youth, the child head butted the guard, and an event with good intentions quickly melted into a national public relations nightmare.

“It was a double whammy because I’m responsible for the experience of all our fans,” says Antony Bonavita, Cleveland Cavaliers’ senior vice-president of facilities at Rocket Mortgage Field House that includes the Monsters. “But I also have a son who is autistic.

“I really missed the ball here in that our staff should have been trained. It was a humbling experience, but you define life in how you respond to things and I’m proud of our team on how we not only recovered but how we became the trend setters,” Bonavita says.

Since then the Monsters have helped give rise to a worldwide movement throughout the sports industry to cater to autistic fans, those with other special sensory needs, and their families. More than 80 sports facilities across the United States, Canada, England, and Australia include Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland now have trained staff thanks to KultureCity, an Alabama-based non-profit dedicated to the inclusion of those with sensory needs.

That set of venues, joining more than 300 other similar public facilities such as hotels and libraries, is now certified to handle those with sensory needs that range from autism to post-traumatic stress order. And the need for such inclusion is more prevalent than ever, as in the US alone, the autism rate is now 1 in every 59 births.

And it was sports that helped give rise to KultureCity three years ago when the autistic son of co-founder Dr. Julia Maha wanted to attend basketball games. Since then, the organization has become a leader in training in the industry and provides sensory bags for teams to provide fans once an organization has been certified by the foundation.

“We’d go for 15 minutes and have to leave,” Dr. Maha says of the earlier attempts to attend games with her son. “Now he sits through the whole game and has a blast. It’s like having wheelchair accessibility. If it’s not accessible, they don’t want to go. Give them to freedom to say, ‘I want to go.’ They want to come. They’re just afraid they won’t have anything to cope.”

Inclusion at sports events once considered unthinkable because of pyrotechnics, flashing lights, and cheering where decibels often surpass the noise of an airport runway are becoming more common for autistic fans and their friends and families. The first response typically comes from multiple customer service counters throughout the arena or stadium. Sensory bags provided free to fans include noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, and weighted lap pads.

For some, that’s enough to continue watching the game. But dedicated sensory rooms with trained staff are also now becoming common throughout both the major and minor leagues.

An example of the sensory inclusive bag given out at sporting events and developed in part by advocacy organization KultureCity. Courtesy of Monumental Sports and Entertainment

Indeed, Maha and KultureCity have worked with 23 National Basketball Association, 10 Major League Baseball, 10 National Football League, and four Major League Soccer venues along with Fulham FC at Craven Cottage and West Ham United in London Stadium, the Blue Jays and Raptors in Rogers Centre and Scotiabank Arena, respectively, in Toronto, Canada, and St. Kilda Football Club at Docklands Stadium in Melbourne, Australia.

“The NBA said we wanted to spearhead this and it just took off,” Maha says. “They want to grow this program to where they can educate each class [of new players] every year. It’s one of those things where more of the sports world will learn how [to interact] with those with sensory challenges.”

The primary function of the sensory rooms is for parents and caregivers to calm down a child who has been overwhelmed by noise, lights, or pyrotechnics at a game. Before rooms were created, though, there were little-to-no options to stay.

“The feedback was this was the first time they could stay for an entire game,” says Ryan Hammond, executive director for the Philadelphia Eagles Autism Foundation, a recently-created organization designed to centralize the autism awareness activities of the NFL club and its owner Jeffrey Lurie, whose brother is autistic. “We’re definitely hearing it is changing their life with a new opportunity to spend with their family.”

As a result, families are gaining the confidence to attend knowing venues are creating sensory rooms to quiet fans who often need only a few minutes to reset themselves and return rather than leave the game altogether.

“We found the demand on those [sensory] items was increasing so we needed to increase what we were doing,” said Tami Hedrick, Minnesota Vikings’ director of women’s initiatives, who has helped oversee that NFL team’s autism outreach at US Bank Stadium. “We located a space to transform into a quiet room for fans that needed to decompress. Then we wanted to go a step further to have trained professionals. It just kept building and building.”

The numbers of people using the rooms are relatively small, though team executives weren’t concerned with that. Hammond says the Eagles average seven to 10 families per game with a high of 17. Hedrick estimated between 12 to 24 families use the room during Vikings games, but even more in the pre-season when more families attend given lower admission costs compared to the regular season.

The Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league affiliate of MLB’s New York Mets, went a step further a year ago, converting a prime-location luxury suite behind home plate at MCU Park into its autism-friendly space they have named Puzzle Piece Playhouse. Similar to the Cyclones’ major league counterparts, raw visitation is low, with one or two families typically using it per game. But headcount is the last thing the Cyclones were concerned about.

“I had seen things in Sesame Place [a popular children’s theme park outside Philadelphia] and saw [sensory need] was becoming more popular,” says Billy Harner, the Cyclones’ director of communications. “We wanted to be ahead of the curve than behind. We saw people who could never come before. People are less in the back room and being part of the conversations and living normal lives. I’m just happy we can be a small part of it.”

Maha said the rooms boost overall team attendance through families previously unable to attend. Several team officials agree with Maha, but say they don’t actively track attendance related to sensory measures. Bonavita estimated less than a dozen families per game use the Cleveland facility.

“We don’t measure it, but I would hope [more people come.] We pride ourselves as Cleveland’s living room,” he says. “You’re all welcome here.”

It’s not just children who benefit from the rooms. Adults with PTSD and other sensory challenges also use it.

“We had one parent who has a sensory-processing disorder and had never attended a game before with their partner and children,” says Clair White, St. Kilda Football Club media manager. “By promoting the Chill Out Zone, we gave her the confidence to able to come to the match and she did visit the room. Pleasingly, we saw that family on another three occasions throughout the season, giving us great satisfaction that we are truly enabling families to connect at a Saints game.”

The Eagles’ Hammond relates a similar experience at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

“We had someone use the room because they had a concussion and were overwhelmed,” Hammond says. “[It could be] PTSD, they need a break, and that gives them that environment. That you’re doing it with the intention with one segment of society doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact others. This is the wave of the future to have support and resources to have people become successful.”

Capital One Arena in Washington, DC, home of the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals, recently added sensory bags and is also working on a dedicated room.

“We’re responding to the market demands and more sensory issues whether they be autism or on the spectrum level of what kind of things can bother you whether it’s lighting or sound or PTSD,” says David Touhey, Monumental Sports and Entertainment’s president of venues.

“More people are aware of them or ways to mitigate them. In the past they’d say so-so doesn’t like loud noises or flashy sounds so we’d skip going to this. Now they know they may do OK to a certain point if there was a place they could get away from it or wear ear plugs. We’re able to open it up to more people to participate and those people who want to venture out and try it we can offer some comfort,” Touhey says.

Creating a sensory room requires relatively little investment even for older facilities. Harner previously pegged the Cyclones’ investment for Puzzle Piece Playhouse, for example, at $20,000 to $25,000.

“If anybody is telling you they can’t afford to do it, they’re not being truthful,” Bonavita says.

Corporate funding contributes heavily to KultureCity’s training and helps give a functional outlet in addition to donated funds going toward research for an autism cure.

“It still is a progression. It’s a shift,” Dr. Maha says. “A lot of dollars from the corporate level has been towards finding a cure. Now with the numbers rising with a good bit of autistic adults, the shift has been how to maintain that relationship.”

Eagles owner Lurie, beyond creating the new foundation, has turned the team into a frontrunner in fundraising for autism research with more than $7 million raised over the past two years, including $3.6m in 2018 via 25,000 donors. Thirty players rode in a 15-mile bicycle ride as part of the Eagles’ biggest charity event. The team’s cheerleaders were even trained so a young non-verbal girl could attend their camp while the Eagles mascot sometimes wears a noise-cancelling headset.

“The response from the community has been incredible,” Hammond says. “We have a radiothon every year that usually raises $200,000 and this year it raised $400,000. Because we’re very transparent, people have really responded to that. In a time when charitable giving is important to people’s lives, the fact every dollar has been invested in autism research is important. Together, we can achieve life-changing results for families.”

Eventually, Dr. Maha says the sensory bags and rooms will be so commonplace it will be noticeable if they aren’t in a facility.

“In 10 to 20 years,” he says, “every space you go in will be inclusive and have full accessibility.”

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