Ellen Burns needed some time away from the crowd. In May, her New York Mets hosted an afternoon game against the Atlanta Braves, which attracted more than 23,000 people to Citi Field in Queens.
Burns, an administrative assistant in a New York CPA firm, is anxious and felt she needed some solitude. She found it hard to find a quiet space so she moved to a corner off Suite 229 on Empire level. This place was protected from the elements and away from view of the game.
The “sensory nook”, as it is also known, was installed in time to be tested on Opening Day. It is available for guests with neurodivergent disorders, such as those with ADHD or autism, but is open to everyone, including Burns, who may need to move away from the action. The portable nook has an overhead light which shines when the power is on. The board's tactile surface lights up with stars. You can even vibrate it if you need to calm down.
Eric Petersen is the Mets' director of ticket services and the chairman of the Accessibility and Disability Alliance. “They're just grateful that they have a place to go to for their family members in case they need to be away for a second.”
Sometimes, all people need that. A family may have tickets to a football game, but also have a child with ADHD or autism. The noise inside can grow louder after a long journey to the arena or stadium, parking and walking while you wait for the game's start. The child may need to take a break. A family that doesn't have a place to retreat might feel like they are going home. A sensory space can be a place to relax and unwind.
The home of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers was the Quicken Loans Arena. In 2017, KultureCity, an Alabama-based nonprofit, certified the venue as sensory inclusive. This type of space, whether it is a full room or Citi Field's booth like area, has become more common wherever there are spectators.
It's the sixth of these spaces in baseball. Eight NHL teams have dedicated sensory rooms as of 2021. Nineteen other clubs have sensory rooms that can be used as an outdoor patio, conference room, nursing room, or medical room. Additionally, 29 clubs offer shaded glasses, noise-canceling headphones, and nine others have these areas. Thirteen NBA teams created a quiet space. At least 20 NFL teams had rooms that were full as of the last season. Some of these included the Baltimore Ravens which will have five by the start of the 2022 season.
Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium had two installed on the lower level in 2019 and one on the club level in 2021. Two spaces on the upper levels will be available for the team's Week 2, home opener against Miami Dolphins.
The multi-purpose rooms have space for nursing mothers and bean bag chairs. There is also a TV to view the game at the desired volume. Lighting can be adjusted by guests. This space was created by the Ravens. Pathfinders for Autism, which is a non-profit based in Baltimore suburbs, invited families to the Ravens' inaugural preseason game.
Allegiant Stadium is the home of Las Vegas Raiders. It also has its own nightclub. There are two nooks inside the northwest and northeast entry lobbies.
KultureCity has always been committed to providing relief to people who are often left to their own devices. Although it did not design or install Citi Field's nook, KultureCity has contributed to the creation of many other similar spaces, including 200 sensory rooms across five countries. It also trained the Mets' staff to know what to look for.
KultureCity executive director Uma Shrivastava stated that the sensory room is a refuge for people who feel overwhelmed. Her company also collaborates with Disney, ESPN's parent, in organizing sensory-inclusive movie screenings at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre.
Srivastava stated that it could be autism or just someone feeling overwhelmed. “Maybe they're returning to a large event for the first time since COVID. [rules being relaxed]. They are a bit anxious because of the crowds, the lights and mask, no mask. These rooms can be accessed by anyone who has a ticket and allow them to take a break for as little as 10 minutes or fifteen minutes.
KultureCity's sensory rooms are available on cruise ships and at schools, among others. Srivastava believes the nook will be a good start for the Mets. There are currently 11 MLB clubs who are sensory certified by KultureCity. However, they do not have a space. KultureCity has worked with families in the past three All-Star Games, three postseasons, and the 2019 London Series.
Micah's Voice is a non-profit that helps families who have autism children. The Oakland A's sensory rooms were created in partnership. It's named after the son of Shawn Stockman of the R&B group Boyz II Men. The Tampa Bay Rays' room was in consultation with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida. These are just two examples.
Srivastava stated that “our ultimate goal” is not to have every stadium. [and]Arena has the room, bags have the bag. We can also push the boundaries and have more than one space.
Srivastava explained that guests sometimes question why they come if it's not comfortable. She said that KultureCity is committed not to making inclusion an afterthought, but a part of every venue's experience. Srivastava confirmed that Citi Field doesn’t have staff at the nook. However, trained staff are present in sensory rooms throughout all venues. Any problems that may arise at the venue are reported to the chain and, if needed, to KultureCity.
A monetary investment is also possible. It varies depending on the location, but costs between $5,000 and $20,000.
KultureCity is a partnership with the NFL, MLB and the NBA. It was created by Julian Maha, an emergency physician, and Michele Kong (pediatric critical care physician). Both have personal experience. Their son, who is now age 18, was diagnosed with autism.
The company's board comprises Jason Isbell (a Grammy Award winner); actor Randall Park; reality star Jenni Farley, Dominique Wilkins and Dominique Wilkins. Dominique Wilkins is a Basketball Hall of Famer. Dominique has two daughters with sensory needs, one of which is at age 25.
Wilkins is the chairman of KultureCity’s Board. He also serves as vice president and special adviser to the CEO of Atlanta Hawks. A statue of Wilkins stands in front the arena for the Atlanta Hawks. He recalled going to games with his daughters and having to get up to keep them from being distracted by the noise or the antics of Harry the Hawk. Wilkins would often take his daughter to the family lounge where they could play videogames. It was a temporary solution.
“When my little girl was born” [younger and]Wilkins stated that they didn't have these types of rooms when Wilkins was going through the process. Wilkins said that the family room was where all of the children went and could prove overwhelming. To keep her calm, I made sure she had someone there to support her.
Wilkins first connected with Maha via Twitter before joining KultureCity January 2019. They discussed parents of children with special disabilities and their shared experiences. They met up in person.
Wilkins stated that he knew that this was his calling at the time. “… When they have multiple episodes, this is what they need. This is where they can balance themselves.”
Even teams without designated areas have made efforts to ensure that people with sensory impairments are included in the games. The game-day staff has been trained to understand the needs and provide sensory bags and other items.
KultureCity provided a bag that has a visual temperaturemeter. This allows people who are unable to communicate verbally to relay their emotions. The thermometer can be pulled out by people who feel distressed while crowded at a playoff game. The lanyard also allows the wearer to identify themselves as having a sensory requirement. Srivastava believes it's a good beginning.
KultureCity partnered with the Mets to offer these bags at guest services. This training was done in 2019 by KultureCity so Citi Field can become a sensory inclusive venue. The nook was completed three years later. Petersen, a Mets employee, said that the Mets Accessibility and Disability Alliance employee resource team conceived the plan that resulted into the nook. They hope to eventually have a bigger space.
“There are [Mets]Petersen stated that employees who have different ties to the accessibility group, such as a family member or friend, are encouraged to apply. “There are people who are excited about this coming here from that group,” Petersen said.
Wilkins stated that it doesn't matter if a fan is suffering from anxiety or autism.
Many people visited Citi Field's current space over the May day, when Burns was there. After the game was tied for five innings, the Braves scored seven runs in the top of the sixth to win 9-2. The Mets' first-place win was a routine early-season matinee. The inclusion of the sensory corner was a refreshing breath of air.
One point, Beacon girls' softball team entered the nook. Four girls sat side by side. They smiled and let go of the bustle of the crowd.
Burns spent some time at the booth's end, with her back towards the bustling hallway. She was wearing a Mets sweatshirt and cap, and she glanced down at her phone.
When she was asked how she felt, her answer was concise but significant: “A sense of calm.”