PHILADELPHIA - If the chorus of "Fly! Eagles! Fly!" or "E-A-G-L-E-S" chants become too overwhelming for any fan with sensory needs at Lincoln Financial Field, the Philadelphia Eagles took a big step to make sure they don't have to leave the game or event.
The Eagles partnered with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and nonprofit KultureCity in the offseason to build a state-of-the-art sensory room on a suites level inside the Linc to accommodate fans and families managing sensory challenges.
They became the first NFL team to open a sensory room inside their stadium on August 4. The Vikings and Jaguars also opened similar rooms last month. Several more NFL teams will be considered sensory-inclusive certified, meaning fans will have sensory bags available if they need them. Sensory bags contain noise-cancelling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads.
"When we think about families with children with autism coming to a game, there's barriers to re-entry, there's sensory overload when we score a touchdown and there's pyrotechnics," said Ryan Hammond, executive director of the Eagles Autism Challenge. "We felt the sensory room was what we needed to be fully accessible and the idea behind it was not to change the experience but deliver a solution if they needed to take a break. If the sensory bag wasn't enough, you don't have to leave the stadium. You can take a break, de-escalate, calm down and rejoin the experience when you felt ready."
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie's brother, Peter, has autism, so funding autism research has been an important initiative for him and the franchise. The Eagles Autism Challenge, the team's signature fundraising event, has raised more than $6 million in the first two years.
"It really was the vision of Jeffrey Lurie," Hammond said. "He has a personal connection to autism and he found that with the prevalence increasing and one in 59 families affected, they need a voice and the voice being the Philadelphia Eagles would really echo around the globe so we launched the Eagles Autism Challenge initially as a fundraising event. ... But this event can't be just one day and we wanted to be authentic to this commitment. We wanted to do more and the sensory room over a year in the making."
The 500-square-foot room includes several activity boards, large building blocks and no windows. The room was designed by medical professionals to ensure a quieter and more secure environment so the colors, lighting and sound were carefully selected.
"We see it benefiting fans with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or anyone who feels overwhelmed in the environment," Hammond said.
Longtime Eagles fan Victor Ykoruk's 10-year-old twin sons, Jack and Ryan, have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Ykoruk said the sensory room makes him feel more comfortable taking them to a game.
"With my sons being on the spectrum, coming down to such a fun, amazing atmosphere but Philly is known to be a raucous atmosphere, I got a little nervous," Victor Ykoruk said before a preseason game. "But now the Eagles and CHOP together have created a domain that is so comfortable and pleasurable and it puts my boys at ease. I'm proud to be an Eagles fan. The organization is nothing short of world class."
KultureCity has created more than 200 sensory inclusive venues in three countries. As part of the certification process, the Eagles had about 700 game-day and full-time employees receive training on how to recognize and help fans who might be experiencing a sensory overload situation.
"It was about being all in," Hammond said.