On a recent Monday night, a first-period goal by the Flyers’ Kevin Hayes sliced Boston’s lead in half and triggered a cacophony of celebration at the Wells Fargo Center. As 19,246 fans screamed in delight, a foghorn roared, sirens wailed, colored lights flashed in a kaleidoscopic swirl.
Meanwhile, in the arena’s soundproofed Hall of Fame Room, 15-year-old Ryan Heit tilted his head almost imperceptibly toward the muffled sound, then turned back calmly to the iPad occupying his attention.
The Northeast Philadelphia teenager is severely autistic. He has limited verbal communication, auditory-processing issues and speech apraxia. Before that Jan. 13 game, which the Flyers eventually won, 6-5, he’d been watching from a suite with his parents. But when the pregame noise and commotion agitated him, they headed for the quiet space.
Once a month, for a first time this season, the Flyers have converted the area near the Club Level’s main escalators into a sensory-friendly lounge, a dedicated retreat for fans with autism or other sensory issues and their families.
“If you have a child with autism and you want to go to a game, there can be barriers,” explained Valerie Camillo, president of business operations for the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center. “Sporting environments are loud and boisterous and that’s part of what makes them great. But for some families that creates challenges. This room provides a place where they can still experience sports, but also have a place to go if it gets to be too much for their children.”
Starting in 2015, the lounge was made available during the team’s annual Autism Awareness nights. The response was so positive, Flyers officials said, that this season it will be available at seven games. And, if a permanent location can be carved out, Camillo said, it could become an every-game feature next year. If that happens, the team hopes to incorporate a view of the playing area for families that now must follow the action on TVs.
Professional sporting events can assault those with sensory difficulties. The decibel levels, the large crowds and the constant barrage of sights and sounds can be hazardous.
“A lot of them often weren’t able to enjoy a game or experience that kind of outing,” said Patti Erickson, president of the Greater Philadelphia Autism Society. “With these rooms, the entire family can now do that. And if something happens, if somebody becomes overwhelmed or antsy or can’t stay seated, they can go to the sensory room to relax and regroup.”
The sensory-room trend got started when the parent of an autistic child complained about an unpleasant experience at a 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers game. The NBA team contacted KultureCity, a nonprofit organization aimed at broadening the acceptance of those with autism and other sensory disorders. The result was what’s believed to be the first permanent sensory lounge, at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We were trying to reach out to a population the league had never tapped into,” said Julian Maha, CEO of KultureCity, which also designed the Flyers’ facility. “[These rooms] are saying 'You guys are fans too and we’re going to include you in everything we do.’ ”
While the Flyers couldn’t say how many fans fall into this category, some estimates are that as many as 20 percent of Americans suffer from sensory disorders. Rates for autism, in particular, have risen sharply since tracking began in 2000. Many of those afflicted, Erickson said, develop a connection to sports.
“Sometimes sports can be really stat-related and a lot of these kids love that,” she said. “Sports are very logical and rules are important. That often appeals to them too. Maybe they can’t actually participate but in those ways they can be as active as any player.”
There now are sensory lounges throughout the NHL, NBA and NFL, as well as at many colleges. Some operate for just one night, others for every game.
Locally, in addition to the Flyers, the Eagles and 76ers provide them. St. Joseph’s has had one available at its Hagan Arena. And while the Phillies don’t yet offer a sensory lounge, Erickson said, Citizen Bank Park employees have been trained to deal with developmentally challenged spectators.
In the WFC’s Hall of Fame Room, which also hosts news conferences and various pregame and postgame gatherings, visiting children have access to noise-reducing headphones, crash pads (mattress-like devices where they can sprawl or bounce); beanbag chairs; board games; puzzles, molding clay, coloring books.
“We’ve been to all of them in Philadelphia,” said Maggie Heit, Ryan’s mother. “They’re very helpful. This way when something happens, we don’t have to leave. We can come here and still watch the game.”
In the lounge, there’s also a specially trained dog in a Flyers T-shirt whose job is to calm agitated youngsters. Lullaby, a black Labradoodle, belongs to Marlton neuropsychologist Jennifer West-Gavin.
“She’s been trained to work with kids on the spectrum,” said West-Gavin. “She provides a sense of calmness. She just kind of sits and provides non-verbal comfort.”
Word is spreading. On that night, a group of autistic children occupied Suite 10. And while the Heits were in the sensory room, a special-ed teacher from the Wissahickon School District entered to ask if she could bring a class of special-ed students in the future.
The Flyers inform fans about the lounge through advertising, arena signage and their website. Those who might need it are directed to Guest Services where their hands are stamped, allowing access to the normally off-limits Club Level.
These spectators are also offered “sensory kits” to help them cope with what a Flyers news release termed the “rambunctious environment.” They include noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools and weighted lap pads.
“Some of the kids who visit the room are perfectly fine,” said Flyers spokesperson Shannon Rostick. “They just want to see the toys and pop back out. And then some kids are popping in and out throughout the game. Anybody who’s here can come. We’re just trying to make it as inclusive experience as we can for our fans.”
According to Erickson, the more commonplace these places become, the more likely the sensory-challenged are to adapt and the less the rooms will be needed.
“The goal of a sensory room is to not have a sensory room,” Erickson said. “You don’t want people to have to need it. We’re fortunate. Not all sports teams around nation are addressing this issue. That’s not the case here. I think the Philadelphia area knows autism a little bit more than most other places.”
As the first period played out and intermission started, Ryan Heit appeared relaxed. He is a student at the Comprehensive Learning Center and a serious soccer and basketball fan. His parents take him to as many events as possible, despite the risks.