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Redesigning Sports Arenas To Make Them More Accessible To Fans With Autism

The loud, overstimulating atmosphere inside an arena can be physically painful for people with sensory-processing issues. That shouldn’t keep them from enjoying the game. At the Q in Cleveland, some new changes are helping.

Quicken Loans Arena, the home court of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, gets loud. At a high point during the 2015 finals, the decibel level hovered around 101–about as loud as a nearby jackhammer. If you’re a fan looking to scream your lungs out around others doing the same, that’s great. Exhilarating, even. But if you’re a fan with autism, or with an illness like Parkinson’s or dementia that makes you especially sensitive to sound, you couldn’t even set foot inside the arena.

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Any noise around 70 decibels is considered loud; for people with sensory-processing issues and sound sensitivity who exposed to sustained noises above that level, it’s physically painful. And beyond the noise, sports arenas are cramped and frenetic; the seats are made of uncomfortable plastic; and there’s so much to look at that it can be impossible to focus, let alone relax.

Because it would be next to impossible to adjust the actual experience inside the arena–sports games are, by nature, loud and overstimulating events–they’re setting aside a space inside the arena where those aggravations can’t reach.  [Photo: David Bley/KultureCity]
Until recently, the solution for people caring for loved ones with autism or other sensory-processing issues was just to avoid games altogether. But this year, Quicken Loans Arena launched professional sports’ first initiative to make the facility sensory inclusive; other teams and facilities have swiftly followed.

Through a partnership with KultureCity, a Birmingham, Alabama-based nonprofit working to foster acceptance for people with autism, Quicken Loans Arena, or “The Q,” began rolling out its sensory inclusion effort last fall for all approximately 250 events hosted annually at the arena. Complimentary “sensory bags” filled with items like sound-muffling headphones, fidget toys, and weighted lap pads are designed to support the comfort of people sitting in the stands; when fans need a break from the environment of the arena, they can head to a “sensory room”–a designated space on the suite level painted in soothing tones and equipped with soft furniture and tactile surfaces to calm visitors. There’s deliberately no view of the game from inside the sensory room; it’s designed as a respite from the action. Since launching at The Q, KultureCity’s partnership has extended to nine other NBA teams, two NHL arenas, and four football stadiums.

The number of fans with sensory needs has increased from zero per game to around seven or eight. [Photo: David Bley/KultureCity]
Julian Maha, the CEO of KultureCity, became attuned to the particular needs of people with autism through his son, who was diagnosed when he was around four years old. Maha is an emergency doctor by training; both he and his wife are in the medical field, and yet they found they were not equipped to handle their son’s diagnosis. “Autism isn’t often covered in medical literature,” Maha says. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, Maha and his wife began reaching out and forming a network of other parents raising children with autism, and began to learn the subtle differences in the way his son experienced the world; the sensation of feeling hair fall down his neck during a haircut, for instance, felt like paper cuts due to his heightened sensitivity.

Most of the world, Maha says, doesn’t understand these differences; it’s certainly not designed to accommodate them. The desire to change that, Maha says, “was really the genesis of KultureCity.” Through the nonprofit, not only did he want to create a culture of acceptance for people with autism and other developmental and sensory processing issues, but he also wanted to upend the way nonprofits operate by taking an almost startup-like approach with the organization, Maha says. Instead of funding large-scale projects or initiatives, KultureCity isn’t afraid to work small–one of the organizations earliest breakthroughs was a kit called lifeBoks, a free kit filled with items like a tracking bracelet and distributed to parents of children with autism to prevent wandering and wandering-related accidents–one of the leading causes of injury or harm to autistic children.

Complimentary “sensory bags” filled with items like sound-muffling headphones, fidget toys, and weighted lap pads are designed to support the comfort of people sitting in the stands. [Photo: David Bley/KultureCity]
Maha happened to share a flight with some of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ upper management and talked to them about his experience trying to take his son to an Atlanta Hawks game–they had to leave after 10 minutes. The Cavaliers and Quicken Loans arena had also been recently woken up to how poorly their facility was equipped to welcome fans with sensory needs. In February 2016, right around the time the team hosted Autism Awareness Night at The Q, a young fan with nonverbal autism was turned away at the gate because security would not let him through with his iPad and external speaker through which he communicated. His mother’s subsequent Tweet at the Cavs signaled to management that they needed to do better. “I think some sensitivity training would go a long way,” she wrote.

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During the flight, as Maha described his experience at the Hawks game, the Cavaliers executive shared with Maha what had happened with the autistic fan. While the incident was not widely publicized–there was never any press coverage or statement from the Cavaliers about it–it nonetheless left management wanting to address their shortcomings in handling the situation.  “And [Maha], being who he is, caught the next flight he could to Cleveland to come do a site assessment of the arena,” says Patrick Scanlon, director of fan experience at The Q. Antony Bonavita, the VP of facility operations at The Q and the person ultimately in charge of changes to the arena, was immediately supportive of the idea; he has a son with autism. “I wanted him to be able to experience games along with his brother,” Bonavita says.

The first step, says Patrick Scanlon, director of fan experience at The Q, was to take the advice of the mother whose son was turned away, and form a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, Achievement Center for Children, and industry experts who held training for facility staff in how to better interact with fans with special needs. “We wanted to make sure we were treating people with respect and inclusion,” Scanlon says. Meeting Maha galvanized the next step of actually equipping the arena with sensory-inclusive equipment and amenities.

Sports games will never be “sensory friendly” experiences; sensory friendly, Maha says, denotes a facility or a space actually adjusting the whole experience to accommodate a baseline sensory need. If a crowded and harshly lit restaurant reduced the number of guests and dimmed the lights, that would be a move toward sensory-friendliness; putting a guest with sensory needs in a separate room specifically tailored for them, Maha says, falls under the category of sensory inclusion.

“We wanted to make sure we were treating people with respect and inclusion.”[Photo: David Bley/KultureCity]
That is what teams like the Cavaliers are going for. Because it would be next to impossible to adjust the actual experience inside the arena–sports games are, by nature, loud and overstimulating events–they’re setting aside a space inside the arena where those aggravations can’t reach. The sensory rooms are insulated to block noise, and inside, beanbags donated by Yogibo–a company specializing in a particular type of body-conforming pillow that is particularly comforting to people with sensory needs–line the floor. Although KultureCity’s work primarily addresses the needs of people with autism, Maha has found that many design interventions–particularly soft furniture and tactile surfaces–are beneficial for people with Parkinson’s and dementia, as well.

Scanlon says since the Cavaliers opened the sensory room and started distributing bags at the end of the last season, they’ve been taking a mostly grassroots approach to spreading the news about it through the local community. Their original partners like the Cleveland Clinic, Achievement Center, and KultureCity have been informing families in the autism community, and Cavaliers will continue to host Autism Awareness night in the winter, which will likely draw more people. The number of fans with sensory needs has increased from zero per game to around seven or eight, Scanlon says; they prepare 50 bags per game, and hope to soon hit and exceed that number.

And while most sporting arenas have a strict no-reentry policy once fans enter the facility, Quicken Loans has equipped security guards with a special hole punch to identify sensory-needs fans’ tickets, so they can step outside for fresh air as needed. “It’s all pretty rudimentary things, if you think about it, but coupled with the awareness and education, you see the lightbulb go off, and people start to recognize how easy and important it is to do this,” Scanlon says.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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