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Volume 20 No. 46
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Welcoming fans with sensory issues

Teams address special needs with more autism-friendly rooms

Antony Bonavita knows firsthand the effect a typical high-energy NBA game presentation can have on children with sensory issues.

Bonavita, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ senior vice president of facilities, has an autistic son, Dominic, who turns 7 this week, so the new Sensory Room at Quicken Loans Arena holds a special place in his heart. The quiet space on the club level, an old meeting room, caters to fans of all ages with autism, Down syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia and similar conditions that can require an escape to a soothing atmosphere. The arena also supplies “sensory bags” filled with noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys and other tools as calming mechanisms.

The Cavs aren’t alone in their efforts. As the Autism Society marks April as National Autism Awareness Month, more teams across sports are addressing those special needs by converting space at arenas and stadiums into autism-friendly rooms.

A room at Quicken Loans Arena offers a quiet space for fans who need it.
The minor leagues have also taken action. Resch Center in Green Bay has had a Sensory Safe Zone at the arena since 2015, and the Staten Island Yankees are introducing a special autism suite with $25 tickets for seven games this season at their ballpark.

One in five people have a disability related to sensory issues, including autism, and only 20 percent of those disabilities are visible, said Dr. Julian Maha, founder and CEO of Birmingham, Ala.-based KultureCity. The nonprofit group is training Cavaliers staff to better assist families facing these challenges.

The trend at facilities is opening a whole new market for parents of special needs children who may otherwise not bring them to a sports event, said Maha, who has an autistic son.

That’s been the feedback in Seattle, where families with autistic kids have embraced the Seahawks’ distribution of free sensory tool kits at CenturyLink Field since the 2015 season, said Traci Schneider, whose husband, John Schneider, is the team’s general manager. Ben Schneider, their 15-year-old son, is autistic.

The Seahawks pay for the $30 cost of the kits for the program, administered through A OK Autism, part of a nonprofit group in Tulsa, Okla.

They’re similar to the Cavs’ bags, but also have stickers and wristbands identifying those wearing them as having special needs should they get separated from their family.

“Ben and I created a video that we play inside the stadium that shows the [“I’m A OK”] logo on the wristbands and the stickers, to further create awareness,” Schneider said.

Officials typically exhaust the supply of 25 to 30 kits available at the guest services booth for home games, Schneider said. The Seahawks make space available on the club level for those in need of a quiet room and are seeking a permanent area for next season.

The stadium initiative started three years after the Schneiders launched Ben’s Fund, a grant program tied to the Families for Effective Autism Treatment. Since it started in 2012, Ben’s Fund has supplied 1,100 grants surpassing $2.1 million to financially support families with autistic kids, Schneider said.

In Cleveland, an incident 18 months ago at Quicken Loans Arena involving a non-verbal autistic child led to the Cavaliers stepping up their awareness of the issue. The child [not Bonavita’s] was asked to remove a communication device from around his neck as the family walked through the arena’s metal detectors, which the child was not accustomed to doing, creating a difficult situation for the family, Bonavita said. The family brought the issue to the Cavaliers’ attention in a nonconfrontational manner but with the intent to be helpful and raise awareness, team officials said.

“For me to get that complaint was a black eye on two fronts … so we went down the path to get everybody on our staff more engaged in education and awareness,” Bonavita said.

The Cavaliers contacted KultureCity after team executives heard Maha speak at a conference. The team would not disclose the cost for the Sensory Room conversion.

Over the past five months, KultureCity’s volunteer team of a physician, occupational therapist, speech pathologist and applied behavior specialist has educated 1,300 arena workers and sales staff through oral and video presentations. All services, including sensory tools, are free.

“It’s not just autism-specific,” Maha said. “This goes well beyond, to all people with sensory issues. ... That’s the key.”