In the last few years, professional sports teams have begun to realize that noisy stadiums can be hard on people with autism and other special needs. Among them are the Kansas City Royals, whose front-office officials happen to include several fathers of such kids.
Spokesman Toby Cook, for example, has a child with Down syndrome. So does Royals color commentator Rex Hudler. And Travis Bryant, director of guest services and a driving force behind the Royals' recent accessibility efforts, has a special needs daughter.
“She’s 11,” he says of daughter Olivia. “She has autism and is legally blind as well. So that’s kind of what led to all this.”
By “all this” Bryant means “quiet zones” set back from the chaos of the crowd, as well as special concession stands with visual menus for those who are non-verbal.
Signs urge patrons to be patient with those who might need extra time to order. If you ask, guest services will provide noise- reducing earphones and lap weights, which help calm some individuals on the autism spectrum. And all 1,500 seasonal staff have been trained to recognize characteristics of autism and how to accommodate fans with special needs.
Sixteen-year-old Ryan Bennett sits with his parents and sister at a recent Royals-Red Sox game. The score at this point means little to him. He’s sweating.
“It’s really hot out here,” he says. Ryan hates the heat; it makes him anxious. And the unpredictable noise level makes him fidgety and hurts his ears.
“There are times I feel like I wanna plug my ears – like now!” he says as the crowd roars at a base hit by a Royals player. But like most adolescents, Ryan doesn’t want to stand out.
“I feel like I’m being rude by (putting on headphones,)” he says. “And I don’t want to be rude.”
By the fifth inning, Ryan has had enough. But his mom and dad, Rick and Kathy Bennett, are accustomed to planning ahead.
“My husband and I are used to driving separate cars everywhere,” Kathy says,” so if our daughter wants to stay and enjoy the event, I can just take him home. It’s just something you do.”
But tonight, they’re hoping to stay through the end of the game. That’s because for the first time this year, the Royals have created eight quiet zones where Ryan can go to chill out. He and his parents peer at a small stadium map and go in search of the closest one.
“Is it marked a certain way? Are there any identifying marks?" Kathy wonders, looking down the concourse and again at the map. “We’re looking for the first-base dugout-concourse-elevator area where it looks like there might be the quiet area,” Rick says.
Searching for the elevator, they find an usher who points them in the right direction. But the extra 15 or 20 minutes is really hard on Ryan, whose anxiety level is already high. Rick Bennett says the directions on the walls and the map need to be very clear and consistent.
“There’s a lot of those on the spectrum who are not going to engage somebody and ask for directions,” he says.
One in 68 children is on the autism spectrum, according to the most recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many will grow up to become adults with similar issues. The Royals’ Toby Cook says that creates an opportunity to sell more tickets but also presents a challenge.
“We like selling tickets but we really like filling the stadium up with fans,” Cook says. “But there’s the rub: The greater the crowd and the volume level, the more we have to be sensitive to people who have a sensitivity to that. “
Major League Baseball has made a commitment to work with the autism community by sponsoring “autism awareness” nights. Cook, however, says the Royals want Kauffman Stadium to be a place where those with special needs can come any night of the year – and ideally stay for the whole game.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. Reach her on Twitter @laurazig or email firstname.lastname@example.org.