Red Bulls put focus on accommodating fans with special needs

By ANNE M. PETERSON

AP Sports Writer

Red Bulls general manager Marc de Grandpre was so committed to making sure young fans with autism and their families were welcomed to the team's matches that he gave up his office.

Inspired by his 10-year-old daughter Julia, who is on the autism spectrum, de Grandpre paved the way last spring when the Red Bulls became the first Major League Soccer team to create a "sensory room" to provide a safe space for young fans who might get overwhelmed in a stadium environment.

The Red Bulls' GM got the idea from the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had just opened a similar room at Quicken Loans Arena. The only problem? Red Bull Arena was short on space.

"There was one space that would make sense for these families to be able to go and have a quiet area, some respite, and still be able to watch the match. And that was my office," he said.

The Red Bulls worked with Autism Speaks in designing the room. Today the quiet space is dimly lit with pale walls. There are fidget toys and other games as well as visual aids to help provide a distraction and calm anxiety. The windows allow parents and siblings to keep an eye on the match.

"What's been amazing to see over the span that we've had this available, the number of families who are season ticket-holders or come to our matches who have kids or loved ones on the spectrum would come to a match sort of walking on eggshells, not sure when the moment would come that could trigger some behavior where they'd either have to leave or try to find a calm place," de Grandpre said. "Now they come to the arena knowing this is a permanent room that's available to them at any time."

But the Red Bulls' interest in accommodating kids with autism and other special needs goes beyond a room. Employees are specially trained to make sure families are helped appropriately and guided in the right direction.

The Red Bulls' efforts will be on display this weekend when the team hosts the Chicago Fire. The Red Bulls have had an Autism Awareness promotion each season since 2015 with a portion of the proceeds going to Autism Speaks.

Julia's journey made such initiatives important for de Grandpre.

"I think some kids on the spectrum sometimes don't always have a big social network or group of friends," he said. "Julia perceives the team - she calls them her friends. She knows that this Saturday is special, she calls it her night with her friends."

Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said the cause is "something that we care a lot about and our club's relationship with the de Grandpre family and Julia de Grandpre has meant that whenever we have this night that it is special and that it is fun. And any time we have Julia around it is exciting."

The Cavaliers worked with an Alabama-based nonprofit KultureCity. According to co-founder Dr. Julian Maha, the organization has helped sports teams across the country with programs developed to help visitors with a range of sensory issues, including people who have PTSD or those who have had strokes.

"I have a non-verbal boy who is 10 years old, which was kind of the driving factor in doing this because he's a big sports fan. We started about two years ago and now fast-forward to two years later and we're in about 100 different venues. They vary from sports, from NFL to NBA to NHL, to concert venues, to museums, to aquariums, places all across the United States," Maha said.

Other NBA teams have followed the Cavs, including the Utah Jazz and the Sacramento Kings, who both recently opened sensory rooms with the help of KultureCity. Maha said not all teams have the space for such rooms, but there are other things they can provide, including bags that have noise-canceling headphones and sensory toys.

The Seattle Seahawks, who started making similar bags available to kids in 2015, also provide a badge so that gameday staff can quickly identify kids who might need extra help. Last year, the NFL's Pro Bowl also put an emphasis on catering to fans with autism and their caregivers.

As parents of a child on the spectrum, de Grandpre said he and his wife debated whether to involve Julia in the Red Bulls' initiatives, but they wanted to be an example.

"We were open about what we deal with every day and hopefully it's helped make this event a success, helped raise awareness and helped a few families along the way," he said.

GAME OF THE WEEK: In addition to Saturday's match between the Red Bulls and the Fire, the Portland Timbers - coming off their first win of the season - host NYCFC on Sunday. NYCFC has won five games, more than any other team in the league. The Timbers were winless in their first five games, which were on the road because of construction at Providence Park.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Portland defender Alvas Powell earned Player of the Week honors after his goal and assist in the Timbers' 3-2 victory over Minnesota last weekend.

SPEAKING: Zlatan Ibrahimovic went on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show and said he'd be at the World Cup. But the LA Galaxy star didn't explicitly say he'd be playing for Sweden. "A World Cup without me wouldn't be a World Cup," he said.

Updated April 18, 2018

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