Sports venues create quiet refuge for fans with sensory needs

Sports venues create quiet refuge for fans with sensory needs

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's portable and features an overhead light that shines when the nook is powered on. A tactile board lights up with stars. And it can vibrate if needed 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're just grateful to have a space for their family member to go to in case they need to get away for a second."

At times, people need just that. Consider a family that has tickets to a game and a child with autism or ADHD. After a long trip to the stadium or arena, parking, walking with the growing crowd filing in while waiting for the game to start, the noise inside can crescendo. A child might need a break. Without a quiet place, that family might turn around and go home. Instead, a sensory space can provide a place and some time to decompress.

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. Since then, these kinds of spaces, whether full rooms or Citi Field's booth-like area, are becoming more commonplace wherever there are spectators.

It's at least 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 created some sort of quiet area. 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. Two upper-level spaces will be ready for the team's Week 2 home opener against the Miami Dolphins.

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. Guests can control the lighting. The Ravens wanted to create such a space. Families connected to Pathfinders for Autism, a nonprofit based in the Baltimore suburbs, attended the Ravens' first preseason game last season.

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. And it helped train the Mets' staff in knowing what to look 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. "Maybe it's their first time back into a large event post-COVID [rules being relaxed]. They're a bit anxious due to the crowds, the lights, mask, 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 the nook is a first step for the Mets. 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's named after the son of Shawn Stockman of the R&B group Boyz II Men. The Tampa Bay Rays' room was in consultation with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida. The Minnesota Twins opened the UnitedHealthcare Sensory Suite at Target Field. The space was completed just before the season began.

"Our ultimate goal," Srivastava said, "is not only to have every stadium [and] arena have the room, have the bags. But also let's push the boundaries, and see if we can have more than one room."

Srivastava said some people have questioned why guests come at all if they're not comfortable. But, she said, KultureCity is committed to making sure that inclusion is not an afterthought but rather part of the experience at all venues. While Citi Field doesn't have anyone at the nook, Srivastava said trained staff are stationed in sensory rooms across all venues. Any issues that arise are reported up the chain at the venue 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. The couple has first-hand experience. Their older son was diagnosed with autism.

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 remembered taking his daughters to games and having to scramble when they needed some time away from constant noise or the antics of mascot Harry the Hawk. Wilkins often took his daughter to a quiet spot in the family lounge, where she could play video games. It was a makeshift solution.

"When my daughter was [younger and] going through that, they didn't have those type of rooms," Wilkins said. "The family room was where all the kids went, and that could be overwhelming. So, I had to make sure that I had someone in there with her to keep her 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 then met in person.

"I knew then at that time that this was going to be my calling," Wilkins said. "... This is a need for when they have different episodes. This is a place where they can go and balance themselves out."

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. Game-day staffs have been trained to be aware of the needs of guests and have sensory bags and other items available.

A bag provided by KultureCity also has a visual thermometer that helps people who don't communicate verbally relay what they're feeling. If they're feeling distressed in the middle of a packed concourse at an NBA playoff game, for example, they can pull out the thermometer and point to "worry," which is listed on the back. There's also a lanyard that identifies the person who wears it as having a sensory need. Srivastava said it's 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. Three years later, the nook was installed. Petersen, the Mets' staffer, said the Mets' Accessibility and Disability Alliance employee resource group hatched the plan that resulted in the nook, and 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 people from that group that have certainly expressed how excited they are for this 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 stayed scoreless through the first five innings before the Braves plated seven in the top of the sixth en route to a 9-2 victory. It was a routine, early-season matinee for the first-place Mets, and the inclusion of the sensory nook was a breath of fresh air.

At one point, members of a girls' softball team from Beacon, New York, entered the nook. Four of the girls sat two to a side. They smiled as they relaxed away from the din of the crowd.

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

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

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