In what’s being called a first for a professional sports league, the NFL will make Sunday’s Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla. “autism friendly” — offering young fans on the autism spectrum noise-canceling headphones, stress-relief squeeze toys and a safe room, should they need it.

“Our goal is to make the game as family-friendly as possible,” said Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility. “We want to see if this is something the fans take advantage of and, if so, whether we can extended it to the Super Bowl and perhaps share it with the rest of the league.”

Working with A-OK Autism, based in Tulsa, Okla., the league will offer “Sensory Sacks” at Camping World Stadium to anyone who wants them. The kits contain the headphones and stress-relief toy as well as identification stickers and badges kids can wear to help others recognize that they may behave differently or lack the ability to speak.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

They’re also creating a quiet room in Camping World Stadium where families can seek refuge if their children become overwhelmed by the crowd and commotion. And security and stadium personnel will get special training on dealing with those on the autism spectrum.

The league got the idea from one of their own. In October 2015, the Seattle Seahawks launched a partnership with A-OK Autism to offer the trademarked Sensory Sacks and to train stadium personnel to set up rooms for quiet and comfort. Seahawks General Manager John Schneider and his wife, Traci, have a child with autism — as do the two moms who started the A-OK Autism program.

“I’ll never forget standing there before the first game in Seattle and having a father come up to us and say, ‘I’ve been a Seahawks fan all my life, and I’ve always wanted to take my son to a game — and now I can,'” said Jennifer Sollars Miller, co-founder of Autism Friendly Locations, the nonprofit that started the A-OK program. “It just made me so happy. The program there has been an overwhelming success.”

According to the latest federal estimates, about 1 in every 68 children lands somewhere on the autism spectrum, a condition that can seriously impair a child’s ability to communicate or interact with others. Many are hypersensitive to noise, touch or light, and some have repetitive behaviors or require precise routines.

Because such behavior may be difficult to control, many parents are wary of public outings, Miller said.

“When someone gives your kid a dirty look — or gives you a dirty look because they think you’re not disciplining your child the way you should — it just breaks your heart,” she said.

The tools in the Sensory Sacks are also intended to keep children with autism safe. Wristbands will list children’s row and seat numbers in case the kids wander off from the parents, a common danger. And kids can wear a lanyard with the A-OK badge — ideally so that strangers will treat them with more understanding.

The program will be announced in the stadium on game day with directions on where fans can pick up one of the sacks.

“The idea behind this is that there isn’t always a visual way to recognize if someone has autism,” Isaacson said. “And it’s hard for people who aren’t experienced with it to recognize that certain behaviors are part of the autism spectrum. We just want to make sure we’re creating a safe and comfortable and inclusive environment.”

Miller acknowledged that some parents may object to “labeling” their children, but she points out that identification is optional and that, for a child who doesn’t speak, it may be especially helpful. Others could simply decide to tuck the badge into a wallet or pocket.

Marytza Sanz, who helped start the bilingual Santiago & Friends Family Center for Autism in Orlando, said she welcomed the Pro Bowl’s decision.

“It’s awesome to see that more people are realizing that our kids need special accommodations and understanding,” said Sanz, whose 6-year-old grandson has autism. “Some of our families don’t participate in a lot of events, because their children have different ways to express their frustration. I hope other places will imitate the idea, frankly.”

© 2017 Orlando Sentinel
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.