This past weekend was huge for the NFL, with people traveling to Houston from across the U.S. for Super Bowl LI. But other huge moves were being made over the past few weeks and months – not just on the field, but in the stadiums themselves, with teams working to create a more inclusive environment for all NFL fans. The NFL began working with Tulsa, OK nonprofit “I’m A-OK” to help fans with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) enjoy the Pro Bowl in Orlando, Florida.
The Seattle Seahawks combined efforts with the organization, run by Michelle Wilkerson and Jennifer Sollars Miller, two mothers of autistic children, to create “sensory sacks” for those at the game with ASD. Anyone who wanted to could grab a bag filled with tools to help that person better enjoy the game: earplugs, sensory toys, an “I’m A-OK” badge, a wristband with the child’s row and seat numbers in case they got lost, and a schedule to help keep track of the game. A quiet room was also created at Camping World Stadium where families could go if their children found any aspects of the game overwhelming.
According to an Autism Speaks, over 2 million people in the United States are on the autism spectrum, including roughly 1 in 88 American children. For some people, an autism diagnosis brings with it limitations in sensory processing. Such limitations can include hyposensitivity, or under-reactivity, and hypersensitivity, or over-reactivity. This means that many people with autism can experience extreme sensitivity to certain textures, sounds, smells, and tastes. They may respond to these stimuli by becoming distracted or preoccupied, displaying behaviors like avoidance or aggression, shutting down, or ‘checking out’ of the environment.
In an effort to help those with autism confront these issues and enjoy their time at football games, the Seahawks signed on to the initiative in October of 2015. This move was inspired by the Seahawks General Manager John Schneider, whose son has autism. The NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility says that their goal in implementing these tools at the Pro Bowl was to “make the game as family-friendly as possible.”
“I’ll never forget standing there before the first game in Seattle and having a father come up to us and say, ‘I’ve been a Seahawks fan all my life and I’ve always wanted to take my son to a game — and now I can,’” says Jennifer Sollars Miller. The crew will continue implementing these autism-friendly tools and hopes to expand them more to other venues in the future.