The new plan to make CenturyLink Field more autism-friendly marks an NFL first.
For the past few seasons, the NFL's Seattle Seahawks have been force to be reckoned with.
They've made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances (winning one of them) on the strength of players like Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor. They're also known for the devoted fanbase that makes up one of the league's loudest home crowds.
The team also does a lot of cool off-the-field work, including regular trips to Seattle Children's Hospital, and recently announced a brand new initiative to make their stadium more friendly to people with autism.
In an NFL first, the Seahawks debuted a partnership with the Autism Center of Tulsa's I'm A-OK program.
The Autism Center of Tulsa (ACT) is a non-profit organization dedicated to developing programs and partnerships geared towards increasing "awareness and understanding, community involvement, and independence for individuals and families affected by autism." ACT was founded by Jennifer Sollars-Miller and Michelle Wilkerson, both mothers of children living with autism.
"Parents work tirelessly to provide appropriate education,. "But we realized many in the community don't understand their unique needs, so they become defeated. Our program is an effort to support their independence and also give businesses the tools to recognize and resources to help their customers who are on the autism spectrum." — ACT co-founder Michelle Wilkerson
As part of their Seahawks partnership, ACT put together a kit for visitors with autism that will improve their game experience.
So what's in the kits?
Kits include noise-cancelling headphones, ear plugs, a detailed game schedule, and sensory toys. Additionally, kits come with an "I'm A-OK" badge, which can help inform stadium crew about one's status so they can accommodate accordingly. These tools were designed with the intent of helping fans take the skills they've learned at home or in therapy and apply them in what can be a challenging and overwhelming environment.
"We realized there were a few simple things we could do that would make a positive impact for Seahawks fans on the [autism] spectrum," vice president of stadium operations David Young said in a press release. "The toolkits are just the first step."
For Seahawks general manager John Schneider and his wife, Traci, this is an issue close to their hearts.
In 2005, the Schneider's 3-year-old son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. In 2012, the couple launched Ben's Fund, a charity devoted to helping families of children with autism through grants. According to an April post on the Seahawks website, Ben's fund has raised more than $850,000 and awarded more than $400,000 in grants to over 500 families.
In a Seattle Times profile of the couple, they mention that noise in particular is something that Ben, now 13, continues to struggle with. That's why Wilkerson and Sollars-Miller decided to reach out to the Seahawks in the first place.
So will Seattle's CenturyLink Field remain a raucous obstacle for game-day opponents? Without a doubt.
It's just also going to be a bit more accommodating for fans on the autism spectrum. More fans having more fun makes for a winning combo, right? Totally.
Will other teams adopt ACT's I'm A-OK program? ACT founders sure hope so.
"We're starting here, but we've already started getting calls from all over," Sollars-Miller told Seattle's KING 5 news. The team is the first, but hopefully won't be the last, to make their stadium more accessible to people with autism.