Basketball for all: New ‘break’ room at St. Joe’s welcomes fans with autism

The autism break room at St. Joseph's University is designed specifically for people who want to escape the blare and spectacle typically associated with college and pro sports. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

The autism break room at St. Joseph's University is designed specifically for people who want to escape the blare and spectacle typically associated with college and pro sports. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Hagan Arena, on the campus of St. Joseph’s University in West Philadelphia, is the latest college sports complex to introduce a cutting-edge amenity.

But this time, it’s not a Jumbotron or skywalk or Hydroworx rehabilitation pool.

Instead it’s a room — well, really, it’s a hallway.

And this hallway is everything a modern sports arena isn’t. It’s quiet. It’s simple. It’s outfitted with the kind of small, plastic toys you could pick up at a Walmart.

It is designed specifically for people who want to escape the blare and spectacle typically associated with college and pro sports.

St. Joe’s calls it an “autism break room,” and it’s among the first of its kind in a college arena.

“Basketball is here to build community,” said Jill Bodensteiner, the school’s athletics director. “And we can’t build community unless we’re open and accessible to all.”

Sports games can be overwhelming for children with autism spectrum disorder. Those games are loud. They’re bright. And they are, by design, unpredictable.

An overload of unexpected noises can trigger anxiety and, sometimes, more severe reactions. Lisa Edwards has seen it before with her son, Ira Tucker.

“He has behaviors that will tell me if he’s uncomfortable, [like] if he puts his hands up to his ears,” Edwards said.

“The biggest thing we want to avoid is having these major meltdowns where people are really really upset and really distressed,” said Joseph McCleery, executive director of academic programs at St. Joe’s Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support.

For families who have children with autism, the solution has typically been to leave kids at home with a sitter or avoid events such as games and concerts altogether.

But there’s been a recent push to create a middle ground.

Starting in 2016, a nonprofit called Kulture City has been working with venues to create “sensory inclusive” spaces designed to accommodate people with autism. The organization now works in 20 NBA arenas, including the Wells Fargo Center, six NFL stadiums, five NHL arenas, three MLB fields, and four university sports venues, according to COO Uma Srivastava.

The recipe

At St. Joe’s, the athletic department and staffers at the Kinney Center worked to create their own model.

There are two key ingredients to Hagan Arena’s autism break room, located in the entryway to St. Joe’s basketball office suite.

First, it’s quiet.

“That’s part one, allowing the person to get away from those triggers that are occurring in the environment,” said McCleery.

The space is also filled with toys that encourage repetitive, predictable motions, such as a mini-trampoline and a Hippity Hop.

“That will calm them down because they can predict exactly what’s going to happen,” said McCleery.

During halftime of Sunday’s women’s basketball game between St. Joe’s and Villanova, 8-year-old Tim McGrath Jr. gleefully bounced on said Hippity Hop while his dad, Tim Sr., looked on.

Worried about how their son might react, the McGraths had never taken Tim Jr. to a basketball game before. All kids with autism are different, Tim Sr. said, but his son tends to mirror the environment around him. That’s not a good thing when you’re at a sports game.

“If the environment’s loud and chaotic. then Tim becomes loud and chaotic,” McGrath Sr. said.

But with the break room on hand, Tim Sr. had the confidence to take his son to his first basketball game this weekend. And it all went smoothly.

Midway through the game, Tim Jr. begged his dad for a visit to the break room. Dad obliged, and his son spent 10 minutes in the blissful calm.

St. Joe’s break room isn’t a permanent fixture yet. The school plans to pilot the concept at a few games this season and see if families find it useful.

It’s a small thing. But on Sunday, for a kid like Tim McGrath Jr., it made a big difference.

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