For families of kids with autism, a football game is about the last place they would consider for a family outing. The noise of the fans, the music, and the game, coupled with the lights and crowds make a pro football game a stressful environment for people with autism. The NFL wants to change that by making the game more accessible to all families. At the Orlando Pro Bowl this weekend, officials are hoping to make the game as "autism-friendly" as possible with tools, a quiet room, and specialized staff training to make the environment easier for all families to enjoy.
At the game, stadium staff will hand out Sensory Sacks to anyone who asks for them. The sacks, which were created in partnership with the nonprofit A-OK Autism, feature noise-canceling headphones, a stress ball, a stadium wristband with the wearer's seating information (in case they get lost,) and a badge that kids can wear to help others understand that they may need special care. (There are no requirement to wear the badge, so families who would prefer to avoid such labels can do so.)
The Camping World Stadium will also have a quiet-room available where families can go to get kids away from the noise or crowds if they feel overstimulated. In addition — and probably most importantly — security and staff will receive special autism-friendly training prior to the game to help them understand the condition and how they can help families during the game.
"Our goal is to make the game as family-friendly as possible," Anna Isaacson, the NFL's senior vice president of social responsibility, said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. "We want to see if this is something the fans take advantage of and, if so, whether we can extend it to the Super Bowl and perhaps share it with the rest of the league."
Removing obstacles for all kinds of fans
One of the challenging aspects of caring for kids with autism is that the condition is not outwardly apparent. Many families of children with autism say they avoid public outings because of the disapproving looks they get from strangers when their children throw tantrums or make strange noises in front of others.
"When someone gives your kid a dirty look — or gives you a dirty look because they think you're not disciplining your child the way you should — it just breaks your heart," said Jennifer Sollars Miller, co-founder of Autism Friendly Locations, the nonprofit that started the A-OK program and the mom of a child with autism.
Miller was also instrumental in helping A-OK form a partnership with the Seattle Seahawks to help make all of the Seahawk games more autism-friendly. The Philadelphia Eagles and the Indianapolis Colts have also begun hosting autism-awareness fundraisers and making accommodations to make the games are more accessible to families with autism.
Let's hope that this is the start of a beautiful new trend at pro football games and beyond to make it easier for people with autism to join in the fun.