ORLANDO, FL – At first glance, autism and a Saturday night minor league hockey game mix like water and oil. People on the autistic spectrum can be terrified by loud noises, large crowds, and flashing lights. A hockey game is filled with the sounds of roaring fans, bone-jarring checks on the glass, and, of course, blaring goal horns—precisely the types of things that might send someone with autism running for cover.
As someone on the autistic spectrum, I know first-hand some of the challenges of events like this. When I was a kid, I had an intense fear of loud noises, flashing lights (triggered by my crippling fear of lightning, which still somewhat holds to this day), and large crowds. One of my biggest fears as a kid was sirens. It was so intense that even a fire engine over a mile away would cause me to start freaking out. The terror was uncontrollable. The same can be said with fire alarms, as after fire drills, I would have a fear for days that the alarms would go off again. This was partly due to the outdated system at my school, which would continue to sound the alarm after the fire drill was complete.
I also struggle with social situations. Needless to say, a minor league hockey game is filled with strangers jostling, yelling, and interacting, and this faces me with situations that can be confusing. Social frustrations are a big deal when it comes to events such as hockey games. While I usually don’t get frustrated at games, there are some kids on the spectrum who at these events will get upset and overwhelmed. One of the features of autism is that it short-circuits the brain’s ability to read social cues that other non-autistic types pick up on without thinking. This presents another big, ongoing challenge for us.
Given the natural friction between autism and hockey, it may seem odd that the Autism Society of Greater Orlando (ASGO) has found a partner and friend in the Orlando Solar Bears. In 2015, the two teamed up to start what has become an annual event that now involves over 150 autistic people, friends, and family members.
When asked why ASGO would seek out the Solar Bears, Donna Lorman, the President of ASGO, said “When we look at setting up a new event, we think about opportunities that individuals with autism might not have and then plan accordingly. [The evening spent with the Solar Bears] is definitely something that the families look forward to each year.”
Going to a sports event like a hockey game is something that many take for granted, but for those challenged by autism, the Solar Bears evening was a rare opportunity. It provided a way to deal with the sensory and social challenges that can be paralyzing. Without this event, some in attendance would not be able to participate in the joy of watching live hockey.
Talking about the key elements that make the ASGO event a success, Lorman said, “Individuals with autism avoid the lines to get in, have more time to enter, spend the pre-game time in a private area with reduced noise, and receive a lot of support from families who understand and support each other.”
This year’s event with ASGO took place on Saturday, Feb. 4, during a loud and boisterous match against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. The evening was jam packed with special events. It was Superhero Night, the game was preceded by the annual Guns and Hoses showdown between the local firefighters and law enforcement officers, and the evening opened with a tribute to local first responders who had received their final call during the past year. If one wasn’t in the know, he/she would have missed the autism group that was silently ushered into a side door at the Amway Center ahead of the game to be taken to a VIP reception.
Appearances by Superman and Iron Man started a string of special photo ops that occurred in the midst of making signs and socializing. The mascot Shades and the Solar Bears Dancers (decked out in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles attire) were hits. Players Patrick Watling, Jon Jutzi, Alexandre Carrier, and Denver Manderson were also on hand to sign autographs and pose with the fans on the spectrum. Watling was charming when a couple kids broke the protocol of forming a line to run behind his table. Without hesitating, he joked with them and made them and their parents feel invited and accepted.
As far as hockey is concerned, my interest started about four years ago. It is peculiar, as for the longest time, I was not the least bit interested in sports. However, in 2013, my church youth group went to a game, and I was hooked. Reverend Sonia was brave in challenging me to dive into a loud and unfamiliar experience. By this time, however, my fear of sounds was transforming into an obsession, and so I was fascinated by the sonic blast of the goal horn and the monster audio system in the Amway Center.
The thrill of that first night led me to become a season ticket holder, and later report on, the team in my city. I am one of those individuals on the spectrum who gets energy off of events such as hockey games. I’m grateful that someone took the time to stretch me and take me out of my comfort zone. If they hadn’t, I might never have had the deep joy of hockey in my life. The efforts of ASGO and the families and friends of autistic people are noble when they open up new experiences despite the challenges of doing so.
I imagine some readers might be surprised to find that this reporter for Team Sin Bin is autistic. There are certain stereotypes linked to autism. Some people think of the character Raymond in the film Rain Man who was a whiz at math, but poor at communication. Others think being autistic automatically means being mentally handicapped. However, the autistic spectrum is very complex—much more complex than people think.
There are individuals like me who are capable of being able to function in a “normal” environment, and then there are individuals who are incapable of functioning without significant help. I am one of the more fortunate ones who is on the high end of the spectrum. As such, I am able to have the wonderful opportunity to be able to write for The Sin Bin. I would like to send a nod to Matthew Harding, Joe Rozycki, and Matt Thomas for taking a chance on me and allowing me to report on the Solar Bears. Without their accepting and welcoming demeanor, I might not be able to report on a topic which means so much to me.
Special thanks to Jesse Liebman (Director of Communications) and Erin Croce (Director of Group Sales) who helped with this article.