When the majority of NBA arenas opened the 2018-19 season with sensory-friendly spaces to make the gameday experience less overwhelming for fans with autism, it seemed only a matter of time until other sports venues followed their lead. Five years later, the practice of offering areas for neurodiverse individuals is accelerating — and not only at arenas, stadiums and ballparks, but also on playgrounds and nature trails.
They go by different names: Sensory Safe Suite at Frontier Field, home of the Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings Minor League Baseball Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals; Sensory Nook at New York’s Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets; and Sensory Trail, a 0.2-mile loop near Middletown, Md., that includes several touch and smell boxes with braille signage.
But the mission is the same: Make more spaces as inclusive as possible for everyone.
“We wanted this to be as comfortable and safe as it can be,” Red Wings general manager Dan Mason told RochesterFirst.com in April, referring to the Sensory Safe Suite, which was designed in cooperation with the local autism council and incudes a colored-pattern floor, built-in shading, a themed door and special seating options such as bean bag chairs. “It is truly exciting to be able to bring families from the area the chance to enjoy baseball here, [and] it’s a great opportunity for us.”
A new sensory room at American Legion Field, home of the Danville (Va.) Otterbots in the summer collegiate Appalachian League, is located on the concourse in the right-field Kids Zone. Equipped with cuddle swings, fidget boards, soft LED lights, wall-to-wall padding, textured rugs, sound-deadening headphones, comfortable curtains, sensory friendly fidget toys and a blackout curtain, the space was developed in partnership with The Hughes Center — a local psychiatric residential treatment facility for children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
“Our goal is to have an outlet for all to have a positive, relaxing and accommodating experience,” Alison Waymouth, director of business development for The Hughes Center, said in a statement. “The noise and excitement at a game can be overwhelming, but the sensory room offers a place to reset and make it more enjoyable and accessible for everyone.”
The Columbus Crew, a Major League Soccer team in Ohio, offers two sensory rooms at Lower.com Field, which opened last summer. The Crew teamed up with KultureCity, a national inclusion advocacy group that helped the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers create the first sensory room in an NBA arena back in 2017 at Rocket Mortgage Field House. Hundreds of Lower.com Field ushers, ticket takers and security personnel are required to participate in sensory training, too, which provides Frank DePizzo, vice president of stadium operations, his own sense of comfort. “There’s only one of me; there’s several hundred of them,” he told NBC4i.com.
But it’s not only sports venues that are making giant strides in the name of inclusivity. The Autism Nature Trail (affectionately known as The ANT) at New York’s Letchworth State Park is “a first-of-its-kind experience in nature.” It was built via a public-private partnership and campaign that raised $3.7 million to build the trail and provide an endowment for its maintenance, operations and programming.
Designed specifically for visitors on the autism spectrum and with a wide range of abilities, The ANT is a one-mile hiking loop that includes eight marked sensory stations — each one addressing a different sensory experience. According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, stations include “a music circle with nature-inspired instruments that create calming chords, a design zone where hikers use sticks and branches to create forts and teepees, and the playful path, where hikers follow loops with different surfaces including sand, log rounds and river stones.”
The newspaper notes that since The ANT opened in October 2021, “parents and caregivers have reported that the park appeared to have a calming impact on children who otherwise are often distracted or agitated.”
“Our hope is that the Autism Nature Trail will become an exemplar, widely replicated, taking from what we learned in the seven-year process of creating a first-of-its-kind experience in nature,” trail co-founder Loren Penman, a retired educator, said in a statement. “While others retrofit public places to make them accessible, we have created an accessible place and made it public — and that has made all the difference.”
In Trail, British Columbia, municipal parks and recreation leaders have teamed up with the local Movin’ Mountains Therapy Services to host a series of free sensory-friendly ice-skating sessions in the Kids Rink at the Trail Memorial Centre this spring.
“The sensory-friendly skates provide a unique opportunity for kids and families who might face barriers when accessing public skates,” Erin Meggait, owner of Movin’ Mountains Therapy Services, said in a statement. “Things like bright lights, noise and large groups of people can prevent some kids and families from accessing recreation opportunities. These skates are designed to remove barriers and improve accessibility, so everyone can experience and enjoy ice skating in a supportive environment.”
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