Fans with sensory needs find quiet at some ballparks

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    Anthony OlivieriESPN.com

Ellen Burns needed a break from the crowd. Her New York Mets were hosting an afternoon game against the reigning World Series champion Atlanta Braves in early May, and the game had drawn more than 23,000 fans to Citi Field in Queens.

Burns, an administrative assistant at a New York CPA firm, has anxiety and found herself needing a bit of quiet time, so she headed to a newly designated space tucked in a corner near Suite 229 on the Empire level, away from the main concourse, protected from the elements and out of view of the game.

Installed in time for a trial run on Opening Day, designers of what is called a “sensory nook” say the space was created for neurodivergent guests — those with autism or ADHD, for example — but is free for anyone like Burns who needs to step away from the action. It is portable and has an overhead light that shines when it is powered on. The board’s tactile surface lights up with stars. It can also vibrate if necessary for a calming effect.

“People really appreciate that it’s there,” said Eric Petersen, who is director of ticket services for the Mets and chairman of the team’s Accessibility and Disability Alliance. “They are just grateful to have a place for their family member to go in case they need it for a second. “

At times, people need just that. Imagine a family with tickets to a sporting event and a child with ADHD or autism. The noise inside can grow louder after a long journey to the arena or stadium, parking, walking with the crowd while they wait for the game to begin, and then a long walk back to your car. Sometimes a child needs a break. A family that doesn’t have a place to retreat to might feel overwhelmed and want to go home. A sensory space can be a safe place to relax and unwind.

In 2017, the home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, then Quicken Loans Arena, became the first sports venue in the U.S. to become certified as sensory inclusive by KultureCity, a nonprofit based in Birmingham, Alabama. These spaces, whether they are full rooms or Citi Field’s booth-like area are becoming more common wherever there are spectators.

It’s the sixth such space in baseball. As of 2021, eight NHL teams had dedicated sensory rooms. Nine others have areas that include an outdoor patio space, nursing room, medical room or conference room, and 29 clubs make sensory items like shaded glasses and noise-canceling headphones available. Thirteen NBA teams have set up some kind of quiet space. As of last season, at least 20 NFL organizations had full rooms, and several of them had multiple — including the Baltimore Ravens, which will have five when the 2022 season kicks off.

Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium had two installed on the lower level in 2019 and one on the club level in 2021. For the team’s Week 2, home opener against Miami Dolphins, two spaces at the upper level will be available.

All their rooms, which are multipurpose and include space for nursing mothers, have bean bag chairs, couches and a television to watch the game at a desired level of volume. The lighting can be controlled by guests. The Ravens wanted to create such an area. The Ravens’ preseason game was attended by Pathfinders for Autism families.

Allegiant Stadium, home of Las Vegas Raiders and a facility that includes its own nightclub, has two nooks — one each inside the northeast and northwest entry lobbies.

Providing relief for people who often are left to fend for themselves has been a mantra for KultureCity. Though it didn’t design or install the Citi Field nook, it has helped create many similar spaces, including 200 sensory rooms in five countries. It also helped to train Mets staff on what to look out for.

“The sensory room is an oasis for individuals who might be feeling overwhelmed,” said KultureCity executive director Uma Srivastava, whose company also works with Disney, ESPN’s parent company, in organizing sensory-inclusive movie screenings at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre.

“It could be an autism diagnosis, or it could be just somebody feeling a bit overwhelmed,” Srivastava said. Srivastava said that it could be their first time back in large events since COVID [rules being relaxed].. They are a bit anxious because of the crowds, the lights, and no mask. And so, these rooms are accessible by all ticket-holders, and allow individuals to step away for 10, 15 minutes. “

That’s why KultureCity’s sensory spaces are on cruise ships and in schools, among other places. Srivastava hopes that the Mets will use the nook as a first step. There are 11 MLB clubs that are sensory certified by KultureCity but don’t have a space yet. KultureCity worked with families during the past three All-Star Games, the past three postseasons and the 2019 London Series.

The Oakland A’s sensory room was created in partnership with Micah’s Voice, a nonprofit that assists families who have children with autism. It was named after Shawn Stockman, a member of R&B band Boyz II Men. The Tampa Bay Rays’ room was designed in consultation with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities of the University of South Florida. These are just two examples.

“Our ultimate goal,” Srivastava said, “is not only to have every stadium [and] arena have the room, have the bags. Let’s not limit ourselves, and see if there is a way to have more than one room. “

Srivastava said some people have questioned why guests come at all if they’re not comfortable. KultureCity is committed not to making inclusion an afterthought, but an integral part of every venue’s experience. Srivastava stated that trained staff are available in all sensory rooms at all venues, even though Citi Field does not have any personnel. Any problems that arise at the venue are reported to the chain and, if necessary back to KultureCity.

There’s also a monetary investment; the cost varies based on location but can range from $5,000 to $20,000 or more. A Ravens spokesman said it cost about $400,000 to install five rooms.

KultureCity, which works with the NFL, MLB, the NBA and U.S. Soccer, was founded by emergency room physician Julian Maha and pediatric critical care physician Michele Kong. They have first-hand experience. Their older son was diagnosed as autistic.

The company’s board includes singer Jason Isbell, a Grammy Award winner; award-winning actor and singer Christopher Jackson of “Hamilton” fame; actor Randall Park; reality star Jenni “JWoww” Farley and Basketball Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, who has two daughters — one is 25 and the other is 14 — with sensory needs.

Wilkins, who serves as chairman of KultureCity’s board, is a vice president and special advisor to the CEO with the Atlanta Hawks, for whom he is a franchise legend with a statue in front of the arena. He recalled taking his daughters to games, and having to make a scramble for them when they needed to be away from the constant noise or the antics by Harry the Hawk. Wilkins would often take his daughter to a quiet place in the family lounge where she could play videogames. It was a temporary solution.

“When my daughter was [younger and] going through that, they didn’t have those type of rooms,” Wilkins said. “The family room was the place where all the children went, and that can be overwhelming. I had to make sure she had someone to help her keep calm. “

Prior to joining KultureCity in January 2019, Wilkins connected with Maha on Twitter, talked about parents of children with special needs and those shared experiences. They met up in person.

“I knew then at that time that this was going to be my calling,” Wilkins said. “… This is what they need when they have different episodes. This is a place they can go to balance themselves. “

Even the teams that don’t have designated areas have taken steps to make sure that games are more inclusive for people with sensory needs. Staff members at game-day have been trained to recognize the needs of guests and have sensory bags or other items.

A bag provided by KultureCity also has a visual thermometer that helps people who don’t communicate verbally relay what they’re feeling. They can also pull out the thermometer to point to “worry” in case they feel distressed while crowded at a playoff game. The lanyard also identifies the wearer as having a sensory requirement. Srivastava stated that it was a good start.

The Mets, who offer those bags at guest services, worked with KultureCity on training in 2019 so Citi Field could become a sensory-inclusive venue. The nook was finally installed three years later. Petersen, a Mets staffer, stated that the Mets Accessibility and Disability Alliance employee resource team conceived the plan that led to the nook. It hopes to eventually have a larger space.

“There are [Mets] employees that have various ties to the accessibility community, whether it’s a family member, or a friend,” Petersen said. “There are many people from that group who have expressed their excitement for being here. “

Whether a fan has autism, anxiety or is feeling overwhelmed for whatever reason, Wilkins said that person might just need a respite.

Inside the current Citi Field space, several people visited over the course of the May day when Burns attended. The game was scoreless for five innings, before the Braves scored seven runs in the sixth to win 9-2. It was a routine, early season matinee for the Mets. The addition of the sensory nook was refreshing.

At one point, members of a girls’ softball team from Beacon, New York, entered the nook. Four girls sat side by side. They smiled as they escaped the noise of the crowd.

Burns had spent some time on one end of the booth, her back to the bustling hallway. She was wearing a Mets sweatshirt and cap, and she glanced down at her phone.

When asked what she felt, her response was succinct but important: “a sense of calm. “

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