ORLANDO, Fla. — Jason Eichenholz wants his son, Jonathan, to be able to enjoy a live basketball game just like anyone else.

But when the pair attended a game at the Amway Center about 10 years ago, his son found the crowd, the lights and the loud sounds extremely uncomfortable and they had to leave early. Jonathan Eichenholz, now 18, is on the autism spectrum. The developmental disorder is diagnosed in about 1 in 36 U.S. kids, many of whom experience sensory processing difficulties.

Several years after that unfortunate outing, the family went to a game again. This time, they sat in a corporate suite. Jonathan found that the ample space, smaller crowd and glass barrier allowed him to enjoy the game, and they stayed for the whole time.

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Jason Eichenholz, a local tech entrepreneur who co-founded a company now valued at over a billion dollars, knew most families couldn’t access corporate suites like these. He also knew that many nights, these glass viewing rooms sat empty. So, he started Events With Jonathan. Orlando Magic corporate suite owners gift their suites to this program, which then hosts organizations across Central Florida that serve people with disabilities. This step is one of many recent efforts to make Central Florida more inclusive.

“People who ordinarily would not be able to enjoy a night at a Magic game or concert or anything … Events with Jonathan is just one way that we can give them a normal night,” Jason Eichenholz said. “Give them hope that other people are looking out for their best interest and wanting them to be included.”

The program launched last season, allowing 150 participants from 10 organizations to attend 10 events, including Magic games and a performance of Disney on Ice. The Orlando Magic, the city of Orlando, Insurance Office of America, Construction Unlimited and Massey Services gifted suites, Eichenholz said. In addition to kids with autism, other groups serving veterans with PTSD, individuals with Down syndrome and people who use wheelchairs have enjoyed the suites.

This season, the Orlando Magic made Events With Jonathan an official community partner and hopes to host groups for at least 25 games. Organizations interested in gifting their corporate suites can contact Eichenholz’ nonprofit organization, while organizations interested in attending Events With Jonathan can sign up for the newsletter through the JonathansLanding.com website to stay up-to-date on when future opportunities are available.

Eichenholz attributes his program’s success to the connections he had in Orlando from his business background. But he also knows it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been thinking like a dad.

“I was wearing my dad hat. Not my executive hat,” he said. “We created Events With Jonathan in order to set my son up and other people with special needs up for success.”

Terri Daly, director of the UCF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), praised the idea and agreed that parents have driven Central Florida forward.

“You could do an entire five-page spread on how many things parents have created for their kids,” Daly said.

These suites still have potentially overwhelming sights and sounds, just at a less intense level, she advised.

If attendees do get overwhelmed, they can step into a quiet, uncrowded hallway or another space to calm down. (The suites are reached on a different floor than the one used by the rest of the thousands of fans during a Magic game.)

Other accommodations are included with the suites as well, such as specialized food menus and sensory kits with tools like headphones. There are no costs to the attendees or organizations beyond parking.

Similarly inclusive activities are available throughout Central Florida for those who aren’t sports fans: everything from quiet rooms at theme parks to a farm and petting zoo in Lake County, Puzzle Ranch, which hosts people with disabilities and their families or caregivers for free on certain days.

This progress is great, though there is still more to get done, Daly said.

“I think it’s good that these things are being developed,” Daly said. “There’s still a long, long way to go, especially as people become adults.”

In the next few years, Jason Eichenholz hopes to help tackle those issues, as well.

Events with Jonathan is just one part of his larger vision for Jonathan’s Landing, a nonprofit with the goal of building a residential community with housing and employment opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum.

“A parent’s number one nightmare is: What’s going to happen to my child after I’m gone?” Eichenholz said. “We want to be able to bring these kids — I call them kids, they can be 40 years old — and bring them into a place where they can thrive, grow, get the life skills to go do so.”

© 2023 Orlando Sentinel
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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