The roar of the crowd, the boom of the sound system, the flash of fireworks — all part of the thrill for many fans who flock to NFL games, but for others, including those on the autism spectrum with sensory issues, the experience can be too much.
Now a growing number of teams are including "sensory inclusive spaces" within their arenas to accommodate them.
The Philadelphia Eagles, the Seattle Seahawks and the Minnesota Vikings have all opened rooms that provide a refuge for those who need to step away from the clamor. The spaces come equipped with dim lighting, sound-protected walls and sensory activities, including toys and games, with the goal of providing a reset.
And Julian Maha, co-founder of KultureCity, the nonprofit that worked with the Vikings and the Eagles to design the rooms, told NPR that there are many people who may need that reset.
"One in six people in the U.S. have a sensory need," said Maha, who is also a medical doctor. That can include individuals not only with autism, but also Down syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and dementia; all challenges that Maha said may not be visibly apparent but come with "a freedom barrier."
"The lights, the noises, the crowd can be not only overwhelming from a sensory aspect but also physically painful to them," he said.
Valerie Paradiz, vice president of services and supports at Autism Speaks, who was diagnosed with autism as an adult, told NPR that for people on the autism spectrum, public sports events can be especially difficult to process. "By creating a calm space, these NFL stadiums encourage inclusion and enable people with autism, their families and friends to attend events together," she said in an email.
Tami Hedrick, the Vikings' director of women's initiatives, worked to create the sensory inclusive space at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
She told NPR that the Brundidge family — whose three out of four children have been diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders — were the first people to use the room when it opened during the August preseason. Hedrick said the room was a game changer for the family, as they would have been unable to attend without it.
The room comes with two trained therapists and has so far averaged around 15 people per game, Hedrick said. Attendance is capped at four people at a time, and they are asked to stay for no longer than twenty minutes, although accommodations could be made as needed.
"We want to be able to have that privacy and to have that quiet," he said. "All of them were only in there for about five minutes. They didn't really need a lot more time."
Several arenas, including the Denver Broncos' Mile High Stadium, the New York Giants and Jets' MetLife Stadium and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Heinz Field, are also accommodating fans with special needs by offering tool kits with noise-cancelling headphones and sensory toys — known as fidget tools.
The kits come with a badge letting staff know that a fan can leave the arena and come back in.
KultureCity works with franchises to train staff to recognize what sensory needs look like. The training, Maha said, includes "the awareness and freedom you're giving to this population to come into your facility without fear of judgement."
Maha knows the feeling. His 11-year-old son was diagnosed with autism and is non-speaking.
He also adores basketball.
At one time, the family only got to enjoy a few minutes of an Atlanta Hawks' game before having to leave. Now several NBA teams have added sensory rooms to their arenas, including the Hawks. Now, Maha said, his son can stick it out for an entire game, occasionally using the sensory room — and the kit — to decompress.
"It's been transformative," Maha said. "At the core, it gives families and individuals the freedom to re-engage with communities again."
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