By Annie Howard
A Barons game recently highlighted a lot more than baseball.
The April 23 game, designed to be autism-friendly, points to a growing Birmingham trend: inclusion of people with developmental disabilities.
“A typical baseball game is loud, noisy and unpredictable,” said Brooke Bowles, director of the nonprofit Triumph Services, which helps adults with developmental disabilities live independently. That noise and unpredictability can create a jarring environment for someone with autism or special needs.
Alongside Randy Prince, the Barons’ chief financial officer, Bowles set out four years ago to create a more sensory-friendly experience. Initially a project between Prince and Triumph Services, this year’s game involved collaboration among 11 nonprofits.
The fourth annual sensory-friendly game used “reduced noise, no flashing lights, a designated cool-down area and mascots staying in designated areas” to ensure that autistic individuals remained comfortable, Bowles said.
The game also provided sensory kits and social stories. The kits contained items such as earplugs and squeeze balls; the social stories, available in print on game day and in advance on the Barons’ website, described the event in pictures and words to prepare individuals beforehand.
In all, the game created a space that was accessible for everyone.
“This game does not simply raise awareness for autism,” Bowles said. “It’s an event designed for families affected by autism and families not affected by autism to come together.”
In the step from awareness to action, Birmingham is slowly transforming into an area accessible for all individuals.
Another local nonprofit, KultureCity, seeks to make more and more public spaces comfortable.
“The key is that, with a lot of autistic individuals and special needs individuals, they have a lot of sensory issues,” said Dr. Michele Kong, one of KultureCity’s founders. “It’s too bright, it’s too loud, it’s really overwhelming. So it’s really hard for them to be part of the events and public spaces that we have. One of our big missions has been to really rethink how we can integrate them.”
Kong noticed that, while awareness of autism was growing, there was a critical gap. The number of autism awareness events increased, she said, “but as you might imagine, even if you had 10, 20, 30 events a year, that’s still a really miniscule part of the individual’s life.”
Kong seeks to reach beyond singular events, transforming a space so it becomes “inclusive all the time.”
Over the past four years, KultureCity has partnered with organizations such as the Birmingham Zoo, the McWane Science Center, the Homewood Library and, most recently, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. In each space, KultureCity trains the staff in “how to best engage and communicate” with autistic individuals, as well as how to recognize and help with sensory overload. Social stories and sensory kits, including fidget toys, weighted pads and noise-canceling headphones, are also provided. The Homewood Library, a new partner, now offers sensory-friendly storytimes.
A partnership with Urban Cookhouse also is in the works; staff are being trained at all four Birmingham-area locations.
Kong hopes to build a foundation of not simply awareness, but accommodation.
“It doesn’t matter if you come on Tuesday or on Sunday, it doesn’t matter if you come at noon or at seven,” Kong said. “This is about always having the ability to accommodate you, because we know what your challenges are and how we can best help you. I think that’s true inclusion.”
Bowles’ outlook is much the same.
“People with developmental disabilities have daily challenges in regards to independent living, employment and transportation,” she said. “The greatest way we can mitigate these challenges is to embrace people with developmental disabilities in our everyday lives – at work, in our social lives and in the community at large.”
Both organizations are making strides toward realizing that vision.