Autism and Going To See the Phillies: One Parent's Thoughts

Christopher Duffley a blind and autistic child from Manchester, NH sings the national anthem as part of Autism Speaks night before game between the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. - Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

I like baseball. So does my kiddo. He has autism. We like going to Citizens Bank Park together, but it has not always been easy. Here is what we have learned about making it easier for each other.

I am a parent of a kiddo with an autism spectrum disorder ("ASD").  We both love baseball, but picking him up and going to games was a little difficult at first. I'm writing with two goals in mind.  The first is to help parents out there figure out how they can make going to baseball games "work" for a ASD child.  The second is to give the Phillies some advice on how to make it friendlier for ASD kids and families.  I'll address the latter point in a separate article.

A little background: My son's original diagnosis was "Asperger's Syndrome" though we all generally use ASD right now (autism spectrum disorder).  There is a whole story in the diagnosis process as the ASD was separated out from the ADHD.  There were trips to doctors all over the place and to CHoP at one point. He thought the brain scan was cool, and he wanted a picture to show his friends, but regrettably, he's a wiggler.

I'm not particularly sad or distraught over his diagnosis.  I mean, it has been several years at this point, and honestly, we were more relief-stricken than grief-stricken, since it explained a lot of things.  Also, it's not like he fell far from the tree in my family.

ASD folks vary fairly widely in the degree and type of symptoms that they have.  It's like a Chinese buffet, where the food is always the same, but the people who go don't try all of it.  The fact that they didn't try out the moo goo gai pan doesn't mean that they didn't go to the buffet, though.  My son is not a flapper or spinner, but he has sensory issues.  A result of this is that he hates crowds. Why? He hates people jostling up against him.  But there is more to it than just that.

There are other aspects of the sensory issues. He hates the heat.  He hates loud noises.  He does not like to vary from established routines. If things go badly enough, he'll lock up and melt down, and there is just no reasoning with him till he can calm down.  It's like all the neurons are firing in a neural version of the China Syndrome.

He's not just a kid with an ASD -- he's a kid, too.  He also has all the issues that go with being a kid.  Maturity and the lack of it.  He gets bored.  He hates it when the Phillies suck and lose -- that game where Matt Harvey and the Mets clubbed the Phillies 10 - 0 this summer with the rain delays?  That was a banner day at the ballpark, folks.  We ALL had fun!

Obviously, a baseball game at Citizens Bank Park is going to be a problem then, right?  40,000 people?  Amplified music?  Fat, sweaty Philadelphians?  Yes and no.  It can be managed.

Over the last five years, he and I have both figured out to make it work for us.  The following suggestions are essentially our experiences in a condensed version.  I hope they are helpful for the rest of you as you consider how you can take your child to the ballpark.   Don't assume that your child/niece/nephew/grandchild can't go to a game.  They might surprise you if you give them a chance and if you approach it the right way.

By far, the best advice is to be realistic.  Then, plan. Know your child, and anticipate the things that will be difficult.  Then, expect things to go wrong, and don't freak out when they do.

I still remember our first game.  My son was really happy to be going to a game, and that was a great starting point for us.  If he did not want to go to the game, it would have been much harder.  We had watched many games, and he was solidly a "baseball fan" before we ever went. I had no doubt that the subject matter was a winner for him. His interest in baseball and the Phillies made it more likely that he'd tolerate some adversity, so I had something of a head start.  Going to an orchestral performance would have been harder, in comparison.

The issues I was concerned about were mostly the sensory issues, so I wanted to head those off as best I could.  I started with basic parts of that by managing my expectations and doing what I could to make sure basic things, like being hungry, didn't torpedo his day.

First, I did not get fancy, expensive seats.  I planned, more or less, that I would be able to go to a few innings, and that we would have to leave.  I set my expectations for: "getting to the stadium after a two hour car ride, getting through the crowd to our seats, sitting for a couple of innings, and then leaving without a meltdown." This is good advice for anyone with young kids, but for an ASD kid especially.  As much as you try to tell yourself that "I won't care that I spent $X.00 on seats, and we had to leave early" you will still care.  Just don't do it.  Think of it as "practice" for going to games in the future.

Talk to the child about what to expect.  "It will be loud.  There will be lots of people there.  Is there anything that you want me to bring to make you more comfortable?"  You ask that last part because you just do, not because you are likely to get helpful advice, just FYI.

I wanted to bring in familiar foods, so I did not have to struggle with him being hungry and miserable because he would not try new food along with being in a new, scary, loud environment.  The less "new" the better.  I looked very carefully at the rules the Phillies have for bringing things into the stadium to make sure I could pull this off. I did not want to try to bring in a food and get stopped at the door and forced to dump the Smarties or the root beer (in a closed, plastic bottle).  That was a very wise use of time.  Go here and look at "Bottles, Cans, and Coolers"

I had a pretty good handle on his sensory issues, and I planned around them.  I knew noises were a big issue for him, so I brought in hearing protection.  Those earmuffs people wear when they operate equipment?  I had him try on a few pairs when we did wood projects, then we took the one he liked, and we brought it with us.  If I had not let him pick it out, I ran the risk of the hearing protection being uncomfortable and being as much of an irritant as the loud noises.  I let him control when he would wear these or take them off.  It was a fabulous idea. Even now, when he is 12, the noise at the stadium bothers him, and we try to remember to bring them or sit in quieter areas.  If I had it to do again, I would have gone to someplace like Gander Mountain to let him try on shooting earmuffs, since they tend to be softer, more comfortable, and more compact.

I took some things for him to fidget with. He had a book, a video iPod (with baseball games on it), and a couple of LEGO Bionicle guys, I think.  I brought mini-binoculars for him to play with, though he mostly watched planes flying by during that first game (he'd never seen them close up, and he was fascinated by them after he realized they were not going to hit the stadium).  I may also have let him borrow my Green Lantern power ring.

Seating is another issue -- at the ends of the rows, you constantly get up and fat, sweaty, drunk people brush past you. It's kind of gross.  In the middle of rows, you don't have as much room.  If you are in the upper levels, a seat by the railing is scary for many typical kids, and mine too.  This is a series of trade offs.  If you can swing it, getting an extra seat is a luxury that might be worth paying for at least for the first few games.

I also try to get covered seats to avoid rain or sun.  We sat behind the Phillies dugout about 20 rows back for a day game in late June once.  Of course, it was hotter than the surface of the sun.  It did not help that the Phillies got hammered by the Blue Jays (it was the "Away at Home" series) and John Buck.  Not a good day for us.  Fortunately, we take an umbrella even on sunny days (just don't call it a parasol).  A mister works, too.  Just bring it in empty and fill it in the bathroom sink once you clear security, otherwise you won't get it in.

I have been in a bunch of sections to find the perfect one for us, and we finally kind of settled on anywhere in the Hall of Fame Club (good for day games especially, but only if the price is right) or Sections 208 - 212, but toward the back, in case of inclement weather.  Section 212 is the best because it has almost no overhead speakers.  You miss a little of the right field corner, but you get a good view of the scoreboard.  It is also right at the top of the ramp to the 200 level, so there is less concourse walking involved.

Concourse walking sucks.  On the way to our seats, we go around the outfield, since it seems to be less congested than the concourse behind home.  We always take the ramps and walk up to our seats, since the escalators involve too many people in too little space.  We walked once (I suggested it when the lines were long at the escalator, and he was getting edgy), and we have never gone back.  I never really realized why until later when I started to think about writing this piece -- he sort of gravitated to a comfortable area for him, and it established his pattern.

I never realized why he would not let me stop for food in Ashburn Alley until I put my foot down and went to Campo's for a cheese steak last time.  The whining was incessant.  We talked about it back at our seats, and he basically told me that he did not like waiting in line because of...all the people.  I recalled that he only agreed to stand in line at the Bull's one time because I promised him he'd get an autograph and that he'd get to look at a World Series ring.  It was kind of a breakthrough for us in that he could identify the source of his discomfort and verbalize it.  I never put two and two together before, but it all made sense in retrospect.  Being a parent of an ASD child is like that fairly often -- once you "solve" the riddle of a seemingly inexplicable behavior, you get upset at yourself for not seeing the obvious much earlier and at a time when lots of strife could have been avoided.

In terms of dealing with his need for routine, we always, always park in the same section.  This reduces his anxiety about remembering where the car is.  We drive the same way to the park every time.  We do the same things on the way to the game (listen to an old Phillies playoff game on the iPod).  Other than the rare cheapo Hall of Fame tickets, we've kind of settled on "our section" as being 212, though he grudgingly accepts 211 - 208 as well if it means we get to go to more games.

I've never had to deal with anyone being an ass toward us, whether we deserved it or not.  I recognize that everybody pays a bunch to go to games, and that nobody really wants to sit next to an agitated kid who is out of control. I have been fortunate that my son has always been pretty well behaved.  Usually, if someone seems like they're being annoyed by us, it is because he is going on at length about the game or the players.  After all, He. Does. Not. Turn. Off. Until the ride home, when he sleeps.

I'd like to think he is well-behaved or I am a good parent, but more than anything else, I think we've just been lucky.  Most fans are pretty tolerant of kids, despite the reputation of Philadelphia fans as being boorish and unruly.  If he gets off the rails, we try to head it off by moving around, or getting food, or something.  The only major meltdown was at the Mets game this summer, and hardly any other fans were around by then, and most of them were probably melting down, too.  It was that kind of game.

The bottom line is that parents and children going to baseball games together is something magical that can't really be broken down and analyzed very well.  It just works.  It is not as easy for some families as it is for others, but don't be afraid to try it.  Your child should have the same opportunity to share that with you that a typical child has.  Plan it.  Manage your expectations.  But don't be afraid.

I've read a million books on ASDs and children.  One very useful one described parenting a child with an ASD as being like a vacation.  You plan this vacation all your life, you save up for it, and you get on the plane.  You are going to Rome to see Vatican City, the Forum, the Colosseum, and all the famous sights.  Your plane lands, and you find that you are in Denmark because the tour company totally blew it.  It's a vacation.  It turns out to be the vacation of a lifetime.  But it is not the one you planned.

Baseball is like that.  The baseball game you go to with your ASD child will be like that.  Life is like that.  A child with an ASD is like that. Leave your expectations and your baggage at home.  Roll with it.  Be in the moment with the child.  You'll both be fine.

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