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Sensory Safe Suite home run for some families at PNC Field

Sensory Safe Suite
Photos by Amy Bezek Photography, courtesy of the Railriders

Bats cracking, crowds yelling and fireworks exploding are part of a night out at a baseball game

But for someone with sensory defensiveness or sensory processing disorders the ballpark and can be a stressful place.

PNC Field in Moosic opened a Sensory Safe Suite last summer in the park’s Geisinger Champions Club Level. The suite is free of charge for families and children through their teens on the autism spectrum and with sensory sensitivities. It includes 18 tickets to a Railriders game and has an indoor and outdoor space.

Jordan Steiner, director of Community Relations for the team, brought the idea to the organization.

“I knew it was something that was very important. You've seen kind of a few sports teams across the country have like a sensory room… I knew there was a demand for it," Steiner said.

Noise canceling headphones sit in a basket on a countertop in suite six. There’s also a basket of fidget toys and weighted blankets. A sound and light board hangs on the wall. It’s activated by stepping on soft-multicolored squares on the ground. There’s a TV for children and families to watch the game inside from a soft surface like the suite’s turquoise pea-pod compression canoe.

The Railraiders collaborated with Curemark to create the suite. Curemark is a biopharmaceutical company whose founder and CEO Dr. Joan Fallon is a Yankees fan. Fallon and her company sponsored the suite and helped Steiner put it together. Because of Curemark’s support, the Railraiders are able to offer the suite, tickets and parking passes at no cost. The Railriders are the local Yankees Triple-A Affiliate.

Christina McDermott’s seven-year-old son, Malcolm, has autism. Last year Malcolm and his family attended a game in the sensory safe suite.

“It’s hard to arrange outings as a family, we have to take a lot of things into consideration. So this was … really nice to have this," she said.

McDermott said Malcolm thought it was cool the game was on the TV in the suite and right outside the room’s doors. Once he got comfortable he went outside and was yelling and dancing. McDermott worried less that Malcolm would have a stressful experience and want to go home.

“He loved the lights. He loved the bubble tube. He enjoyed some of the hands on sensory toys that he played with,” she said.

Carol A. Coté, Ph.D., is the chair and Program Director for the University of Scranton’s Department of Occupational Therapy.

“Speaking from more like a therapy point of view, when we work with children who have these issues, we're not just necessarily looking for them to get away from it, but we're looking for them to be able to deal with it, to have some strategies or some exposure," she said. "But this would give a nice opportunity, then to do it, in small increments and have an opportunity to take a timeout and hopefully the child will learn a little bit and get a little more comfortable.”

Coté, who hasn’t seen the suite, spoke generally about its benefits for children with sensory issues.

“It just opens up some new things that a family can do a little bit more securely, a little more safely and competently," she said. "I congratulate the ballpark for thinking of this and making it happen.”

The sensory suite was a personal project for Steiner. Her brother is on the autism spectrum. Her family wasn't always able to attend sporting events or big public outings.

“My parents knew that he would get overstimulated and frustrated," Steiner said. "So it's been amazing to hear the feedback from families kind of like mine.”

The suite is first come, first serve and families can sign up on the Railriders' website. Steiner already has more than 100 requests to use the suite before the end of the season on Sept. 28.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.