Sports arenas have well-deserved reputations for being extremely loud, crowded, and over-stimulating, as anyone who has ever been to a game knows. Now NFL franchises are finding ways to accommodate individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental disabilities.
The Philadelphia Eagles, for example, recently opened the first NFL sensory-inclusive room at Lincoln Financial Field, noted a recent CNN article. The room is designed to be a relaxing and soundproof space, complete with sensory toys, sensory active wall displays, minimal lighting, and earplugs for people with ASD and others who live with sensory processing disorders.
Sensory processing disorders are a range of conditions in which a person’s brain has trouble receiving and responding to information obtained through their senses, making the typical stadium environment an overwhelming or painful place to be. Due to the ‘no reentry’ rule of these venues, many special needs families have chosen to forego the game day experience.
To prepare for the opening of the new sensory space, over 700 Eagles employees underwent training on recognizing and assisting fans that may be experiencing sensory overloads. This training included the actors who portray Swoop, the Eagles’ mascot. Swoop’s mannerisms are much more subdued while visiting the sensory inclusive space, so as to not overwhelm guests with the character’s typical flailing movements.
The New Era Field of the Buffalo Bills has also recently become a certified sensory inclusive space. The team provides sensory inclusion bags to fans with processing issues. The bag’s contents include multiple fidget toys, a lanyard, and visual cue cards, allowing guests to communicate their feelings nonverbally.
According to the CNN article, in addition to the Eagles, nine NFL football franchises this season will be considered sensory-inclusive certified: the New York Giants, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Vikings franchise, for example, staffs its sensory inclusion room with two behavioral therapists during game day.
Ten National Hockey League teams, nine major league baseball teams and three major league soccer teams have also become sensory-inclusive certified.
KultureCity, a nonprofit that certifies spaces like sports arenas as sensory inclusive among other efforts, notes on its website that being sensory inclusive “ensures daily accessibility not limited by time and location thus creating an accepting and inclusive community.” Through its app, families can view a “social story” experience of the certified venues to learn about the available amenities and better prepare for their upcoming experience.
Other public spaces are also become sensory inclusive certified through KultureCity. The Dallas Zoo, for example, recently began offering sensory bags and a sensory room for its visitors. The Willoughby-Eastlake Public Library in Ohio partnered with KultureCity to make library facilities, events, and programs certified as sensory inclusive, providing sensory bags at all its branches for patrons who want them.
The initiative to create more sensory-inclusive spaces provides families with special needs helpful tools that allow them to enjoy experiences that may not have been available to them previously. As more venues focus on accessibility, more people with autism and their families are likely to attend and enjoy what those venues have to offer.