In this day and age, a number of children have what we call “special needs”, and tend to be “left behind” when it comes to various sporting events, as fans. Approximately one in every 68 children have Autism Spectrum Disorder, up 30% from just two years ago. One of my long time friends, Keith Mc, has an awesome son, Nathan, that falls into this category. Keith’s told me about taking Nathan to a baseball game (the Lowell Spinners, @LowellSpinners, a Single A Farm League team for the Boston Red Sox), only to have to leave shortly into the 2nd inning because the game was so slow. So, what can be done about building a bridge between Autism and Sporting Events?
(Doug’s note: This was originally posted on February 15th, 2016 on the original TCR site. It’s being posted again on the new site)
Let me preface this with a note that I am not a parent of a special needs child, so I don’t have nearly the experience in day to day dealings with issues that Keith and other parents like him have. All I can do is pass along the information that was shared with me, and to give advice/guidance to both parents and the various sports entities (at all levels) in the hopes that everyone can benefit… especially the kids. It is my hope that all athletic organizations can do more to welcome a potential fan base that may, at times, feel left on the outside, looking in.
After Keith shares his observations and pictures, I’ll include some additional suggestions and have some comments from the two teams involved with this adventure.
I also need to give a very hearty “Thank you!” to the good folks of IfINeedHelp.org (@QRCodeiD1) for donating an ID tag to Keith and Nathan, well before they attended this basketball game between the UMass Lowell River Hawks (@RiverHawkNation) and Stony Brook Seawolves (@SBAthletics). These folks have come up with a QR Code that contains just about any contact information needed and can be attached to clothes, back packs, shoes or even in ID card format. Check out their site, please.
Without any further ado, some pictures and observations from Keith about the whole experience…
Before I tell you about taking my son, Nathan, to his first collegiate sporting event, let me give you some background information for context.. I’m a recently divorced parent who has an autistic child with ADHD and (sometimes) has stomach seizures. As a father, I always want to give my son the same opportunity other children have.
With a special needs child, and with funds not being like they used to be, I really need to pick and choose events that he might like. Of course, the longer we stay, the more of a “win” it is. I’ve tried some minor league baseball events (Author’s note: the Lowell Spinners, a Short Season Single A baseball team is local to Keith and his son), but for my son, the game goes a little too slow to keep his attention for more than 1 inning.
I’ve had some opportunities to go to some pro sporting events in Boston, paying nothing for the ticket, and I instantly get nervous, thinking “What if he wants to go right away?”, “What if the amount of people overwhelms him?”, or even “What if he has a meltdown and have no one to help me out?”. Boston isn’t a “hop, skip and jump” from where I live; it’s a lot to think about before going to these types of events. Plus, my son is built like a linebacker and is projected to be over 6ft tall when he grows up. There are times when his strength is also an area of concern.
Instead of going into Boston, my friend says to me, “Why don’t you try a college game instead? You have a top rated college hockey team right around the corner from you (UMass Lowell).”
So I started researching and looking for tickets and it was still a little too rich for me so we started to think of a Plan B:
The UMass Lowell River Hawks are new to Division 1 now, but their tickets were a lot more affordable. Now it comes down to timing it that I have my son on a weekend that they are playing local. We found the best game to attend: A February 6th, 2016 home basketball game vs. the Stony Brook Seawolves. The bonus to this is that instead of playing at the Tsongas Arena (6,400+ people), it was at the Costello Athletic Center (2,100 people) with bench style seating.
(Author’s note: Since this was a very special “trial run”, I utilized my contacts to secure three tickets and parking for Keith, Nathan and “Mac” (Grandpa), at no charge to them.)
Fast forward to February 6th: My son, dad and I are all heading to the game. I have everything packed for the event: Noise cancelling headphones, extra set of clothes and his id tag (courtesy of IfINeedHelp.org), in the event something happened and Nathan was separated from us. Thankfully, we had access to the media parking lot (direct access to the Costello Athletics Center), which helped tremendously as we could easily access the arena, pick-up our tickets, and find a place to sit (Security says we can go left or right to our seats; all tickets are General Admission). We select our seats and arrive on time to see both teams practicing.
After getting settled, my son asks to walk around and go back to the front area to get stats sheets of both teams and UMass Lowell’s schedule. My son was so happy and looks through it (it’s a couple pages, however, he’s excited). Throughout all this, he is not using my phone to watch some of his favorite YouTube videos. Rather, he’s paying attention to the players. The pre-game buzzer goes off to zero and he asks for his headphones because it was too loud. The gym start to fill up on one side and half-filled on the other side with a good mix of college students, adults, and children.
We noticed that one of the younger kids that sat near us had noise cancelling headphones, too! After the National Anthem, the game begins and he starts watching. My son is having fun, watching the teams go back and forth. I take a few minutes and head to the concession stand to get popcorn for my son and a pretzel for my dad. I come back and my son is still happy watching the game.
We try to take the headphones off. With our luck the buzzer goes off for a change of possession, timeout, or a player substitution. The headphones go right back on. The 1st half ends and UMass Lowell is down nine points. With a 15 minute half-time, and wanting to make sure my son stays occupied, I let him use my phone. He’s good to go until the players come back out. There are some kids playing on the court, so Nathan splits his attention between them and watching his YouTube videos.
The second half begins and the phone comes back to me. We continue watching the game. The teams and going back and forth, however, Stony Brook is starting to pull away and up their lead to almost 20 points. Nathan is starting to get a little bored and asks to leave. We wanted to get to the 10 minute mark (of the second half) before thinking about leaving. We successfully make it and once there is a stoppage, we start to pack up to leave.
Overall, we stayed at the basketball game event for about two hours, which I would call a win-win! My son said he had a fun time and brought his basketball papers to school on Monday to tell his friends. After all this, we were able to get a deal to go to a college hockey and will be taking him.
More to come? We’ll find out!
As Keith noted above, he came prepared with everything that Nathan would possibly need. What can you, as a parent of an autistic child, bring to help your child enjoy their entire experience?
- Noise Canceling/Muting headphones
- Something to keep your child occupied during slower play action (Smart phone, iPad, Android, etc)
- Change of clothes
- An item that brings your child comfort, such as a “binkie”, a favorite stuffed toy (should be something soft)
- Medication (if needed)
- Another person to assist you, as needed (so you can run to get drinks/snacks, restroom, take quick breaks, etc)
Erin, from IfINeedHelp.org offered Keith and I a great suggestion: It’s much easier on the child when you’re able to go from car to seat with as little time and interruption as possible.
I was fortunate that I was able to utilize my own connections to help facilitate this for Keith and Nathan, however, most people don’t have that ability. It’s much easier to work with the people when the event is hosted in a smaller venue and for organizations that may not be “as well known” as a larger entity (such as the Arkansas Razorbacks, Boston Bruins, Atlanta Hawks, the WWE, etc).
So, who do you contact, and how do you help get everything into place so that you can ensure that your child remains calm throughout this adventure? Almost every Athletics Organization has a staff directory listed somewhere on their site (Pro teams, included… but you have to dig around for them). Your best bet would be to start with the “Sports Information Department” for collegiate athletics and either “Communications and Public Relations”, “Marketing”, “Fan Experience”, or even the folks at “Ticket Sales” or “Box Office”. You could also reach out to your favorite Sports Media personality (TV or radio) via email or Social Media to ask for an assist.
I took a few minutes to browse through the Atlanta Hawks Staff Directory and am a bit saddened to not see an email address or a phone number to actually call. Again, this is the difference between working with one of the larger sporting organizations vs one of the smaller ones. This is a practice that needs to change, if these organizations do not want to continue alienating a sizable potential fan base.
Hopefully, as the Autism Spectrum disorder continues to remain present, more and more athletics teams will do what they can to provide accommodations, as needed.