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Quiet zone at Citi Field could be a model for inclusion

New York Mets' fans celebrate after the Mets'

New York Mets' fans celebrate after the Mets' David Wright hit a two-run home run in the first inning of a baseball game against the Florida Marlins at Citi Field in New York. Credit: AP, 2010

There’s no comparison to the thrill of being at a live baseball game. But for some families, this rite of summer is difficult for reasons most of us couldn’t imagine. It’s just too stimulating.

Last week, the New York Mets surveyed around 1,000 fans on their experiences at Citi Field, asking about topics like the scoreboard, music and — the addition of a quiet zone.

What the Mets forgot to mention (or simply chose not to) in the survey was that the quiet zone, if established, would be meant for families with autistic children who would never be able to have the experience otherwise.

The team got the idea after designating a similar section May 6 for Autism Awareness Day. The organization is reviewing responses from the survey before making a final decision about setting aside the second deck, left field section as one with no music and a lower noise level overall — announcers included.

Children with autism spectrum disorder or similar disorders often don’t get to do many of the things children of a similar age do because the sounds and lights become overwhelming. One in 88 children today are diagnosed with some form of the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and special sections and events like these are definitely in high demand.

A sensory-friendly version of “The Lion King” was held last year at the Minskoff Theater, a first for Broadway. After that, 1,500 people asked about future productions with a similar setup. Two more productions were slated for this year: “Mary Poppins” in April and “The Lion King” again in September. The shows have toned down scenes by removing strobe lights and jarring noises from the production, and there are areas for overwhelmed children to retreat to, staffed with autism experts and stocked with beanbag chairs and coloring books.

The Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, N.J., has also scheduled a sensory-friendly series this season with a few shows this fall, including “Little Red Riding Hood and Other Stories” in October and New Jersey Ballet’s “Pinnochio” in November.

AMC Theatres and the Autism Society have also teamed up to offer a “Sensory Friendly Films” program one day per month, screening a current film in an environment more suited for the needs and desires of families who normally could never attend a movie. No previews are shown beforehand; parents are allowed to bring their own snacks (most children with the disorder are on strict diets not involving chocolate and soda); and audience members are welcome to walk around, dance, sing and do other things that would be unheard of at a general admission film.

NASCAR also partnered with the national advocacy organization Autism Speaks to host the first autism-friendly NASCAR race experience at the FedEx 400 in Delaware earlier this month. “Autism Speaks Day at the Races” included presentations on the latest research and services available to families, along with a quiet zone during the race.

While many organizations have set aside specific dates and events for families, the Mets could be the first to institute a permanent section available for all games and events. That would make them a national model -- not just for sports franchises, but for other entertainment venues as well.

All children should go to a baseball game. All children should be able to see a movie. One section at one stadium won’t change the world, but it could be the spark that starts the fire.

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