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People with sensory needs find helpful setting at T-Mobile Arena

Updated March 4, 2019 - 6:18 am

The pyrotechnics. The flashing lights. The booming sounds of the pre-game show and the clamor of the competition once the puck drops. All combine to create exactly the sensory experience hockey fans crave at Vegas Golden Knights games at T-Mobile Arena.

But for Kristlynn Allison and Christian Mouer, who have autism spectrum disorder, the cacophony of sounds, sights and general craziness inherent in a live sporting event can be uncomfortably overwhelming.

So it’s pretty impressive that Kristlynn and Christian both attended their first pro hockey game recently. Not only did they see the team win and meet mascot Chance — who seemed to intentionally be less boisterous than usual — but they also earned their own wins by surviving, even enjoying, the experience.

This is thanks in part to the backpacks they wore and the aids in them — noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, fidget toys — that they used when the chaotic vibe around them became a bit too much.

The “sensory bags” are available for loan to patrons at no charge at the arena’s guest relations booths. They’re part of an effort by T-Mobile Arena and MGM Resorts International to make not just hockey games but other events more sensory-inclusive to people with conditions including autism spectrum disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

People with such disorders may face “a whole assortment of issues,” says Erin Honke, a clinical neuropsychologist at Touro University Nevada’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. Issues can include aversion to loud noises or bright lights or “feeling very overwhelmed (with) crowds.”

Short of avoiding places where triggers exist, situations may be made more manageable by using such aids as headphones to cancel out noise or fidget toys to “focus their attention on something in their hands” instead of on the crowd around them, says Kayla Boucher, a pediatric occupational therapist at Touro.

The sensory bags at T-Mobile Arena contain those aids, as well as sunglasses, and even a card that displays moods through drawings.

Kristlynn, 11, also has impaired vision that “has caused her other senses to be heightened,” says her mother, Jeanette Allison. Particularly with noises, Kristlynn “becomes very disoriented and very agitated because she can’t see anything around her. So it’s overwhelming.”

Kristlynn made use of the sensory bag’s headphones and fidget toys during the game, resulting in a good experience, her mother says.

Christian, 11, tends to become “fidgety and anxious” when exposed to loud noises, says his father, Chris Mouer. During Tuesday’s game, Christian used the aids to be “as engaged as he wanted to be” during the game.

However, the noises and lights of pre-game player introduction did turn out to be “kind of a shock for him,” Mouer adds, prompting him and Christian to leave the arena for a respite.

But Christian “was a champ the rest of the way,” his father adds, even getting up and joining the crowd in cheers when the Knights scored.

“I’d say it was a 95 percent success,” says Mouer, who hopes to take the family to another game, this time with the knowledge that “the next time we do this, we’ll have a sensory bag and wait to go down (after) the introductions.”

Jessica Stanley, manager of guest experience for MGM Resorts, says the program was unveiled in November, prompted by company representatives having heard a presentation by Dr. Julian Maha, co-founder of KultureCity, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sensory inclusion.

KultureCity provided the sensory bags and trained the arena’s front-line staff in serving guests with sensory conditions. In fact, Maha adds, “I think the biggest thing is the training. I cannot emphasize that enough.”

Stanley says T-Mobile Arena has 50 sensory bags available, and the company plans to expand the program to all of its venues here.

For children with sensory needs and their families, having sensory-friendly entertainment options available can be liberating. Jeanette Allison says events at T-Mobile Arena will be more accessible to her family with the knowledge that Kristlynn will have “a comfortable environment and surroundings she can also enjoy.”

“Socially, it’s a big boost for her to be able to attend events like this.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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