CWS 2023: Fans with autism don’t have to miss out on the action

Organization offers sensory-sensitive tips for those attending College World Series, Storm Chasers games this summer
An Omaha organization has sensory-sensitive tips for those attending College World Series and Storm Chasers games this summer.
Published: Jun. 14, 2023 at 11:33 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The sights and sounds are a huge part of the ballpark experience, but for some baseball fans, they can — temporarily — take the fun out of it.

“Whether it’s a smell or the roar of a crowd, or everything’s going great for an hour and then something happens, a balloon pops, something like that is a trigger,” Autism Action Partnership CEO Justin Doughtery said.

Which is why more stadiums and arenas — like Werner Park, home of the Storm Chasers and Union Omaha — are providing a place for families of autistic loved ones to reset.

“Which is just identifying an area within the park to say, if at any point you or your loved one is overstimulated or needs a moment for relaxation, or self-soothing, or other words to say, a moment to just collect, this is an area with the least amount of stimuli,” Dougherty said.

According to MECA Omaha, there is no designated quiet zone for sensory-sensitive fans at Charles Schwab Field. Like most stadiums, they also do not allow outside food and beverage, which beHaven Kids CEO Themis Gomes said is a missed opportunity, since access to the familiar can make a huge difference to the family.

“That’s a big component, if you’re all of a sudden taking your teenage child to a sporting event like that, why can’t you bring the special water bottle or why can’t you bring a special snack, it’s gonna be a big person who looks normal, but they way they interact with their environment, they look different,” Gomes said. “And sometimes that’s the little thing where the parent says... if there’s any crisis or any event, I’m not going to be able to soothe my child, so I would just rather not go, and that affects not only the child who is

“When we talk about inclusion, it’s not just about inclusion of the child who is autistic and special, its the inclusion of the whole family that lives that on a day to day basis,” she said. “What needs to be true for that to happen, you need to have space, potentially, where you can cool off if you need to, or a place where you can actually easily exit without going through hoops and loops... Then you probably need to bring items with your child that they feel comfortable with, they can follow their routine, even though they’re in a different environment.”

In addition to the Quiet Zone, Autism Action Partnership even provides a sensory kit to families at Werner Park.

“The sensory kits allow for hopefully the families to stay and engage and hopefully enjoy the rest of the day,” Dougherty said.

“Some times a parent might forget a headphone that might reduce the noise in a big stadium or fidgets or something they can really concentrate on when they are overstimulated or overwhelmed,” Gomes said.”So there are a bunch of things that one can do to actually make it more inclusive, not only to the person who is autistic but to the whole family impacted by not going to these events and not being able to share these experiences that any family should.”

Families with loved ones experiencing sensory overload say one of the most difficult things to deal with it is the reaction of those around them. They remind us, sensitivity can go both ways.

“Just showing a little grace in the moment, because a lot of families, sometimes there’s a lot of judgment,” Dougherty said. “People don’t understand what’s exactly happening and there’s an immediate judgment on parenting or the child’s behavior, not understanding there’s a disability. So we try to offer (as advice) at least if nothing else, show some grace and allow the person to navigate the situation in a way that’s best for them.”

“Whether you maybe come out on a little bit slower night like a Tuesday, maybe you stay away from fireworks or whatever it may be, the ballpark’s an opportunity to include,” Storm Chasers president Martie Cordaro said. “If being a part of sports or watching sports, being a spectator is something that’s important for your loved one who may have autism... put on your noise-canceling headphones and head out to the park.”

It’s also recommended that when a family does go to the ballpark for a CWS game or any other, check in with the ushers and security personnel in the area and introduce your family member so they are familiar with and able to better understand should an issue arise.