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Birmingham event center adding accommodations to satisfy sensory needs

Baillee Majors/APR

Going to a concert or a sporting event usually involves buying a ticket and picking your seat. That experience can be different for families dealing with disabilities and special sensory needs. One venue in central Alabama is working to see that no one is left out.

Crowds pour into the Birmingham Jefferson County Convention Center. WWE wrestling fans are waiting for a match to begin. People in the crowd hold up signs and fireworks go off as the wrestler makes his way to the ring for the match.

Whether the event is WWE, rock concert, or a sporting event, you can bet it’s going to be loud. That’s what most ticketholders at the BJCC pay for, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

Diane Knight is the mother of an adult child with Autism.

“He’s a 29-year-old, 240 pound big kid who carries around a stuffed Michael from Peter Pan. And people look at him, and I’m like, ‘He has autism. It’s a comfort thing,’” Knight said.

Taking him to a major event at the BJCC or any other venue would be nearly impossible, forget professional wrestling. Even when the stage show of Disney’s The Lion King came to BJCC, it was too much. Knight said when the characters began parading down the aisles, Jack was overwhelmed and had to leave.

“We went into the lobby, and he found a TV he started watching where he felt more comfortable. It was quiet. No one was out there. We literally sat on the floor. I cried,” Knight said.

Sitting in the lobby at BJCC was the only alternative for the Knight family. Staff at the entertainment venue asked if there was anything they do to help. Now, there is. It’s called a sensory room.

“The items that are in the sensory rooms are very intentional. They are meant to target the senses,” said KultureCity Board member Dr. Michele Kong.

She’s referred to the soft lighting, plush carpet, seating and sensory activities.

“[There is] a touch wall, and that's allowing the individual to have their touch sense to be to be for them to sort of use that,” Kong said. “That's a bubble wall that has an inner, a certain sound that we know is calming and then there's the sort of the motion of the the bubbles. And even if you look at the coloring is very intentional in the colors. All of it is really meant to help someone with their senses.”

Visitors with special needs can touch and play with these features to help them recover from the overwhelming sights, sounds and crowds in the building.

Knight said sensory rooms like the one at the BJCC make life a lot more manageable for 29-year-old Jack.

“Being able to come to like the BJCC [and] see now that they have sensory rooms and that the staff is equipped and educated in people with invisible disabilities, it makes coming to events an amazing feat,” Knight said.

Kong said these rooms are important because one in six people have an invisible disability.

“You could be a little kid with autism. You could be 29-year-old teenager like, Diane’s, son with autism. You could be a 6-year-old with Alzheimer's or dementia, someone with stroke or a veteran with PTSD," she said. "It really has no discrimination toward your age, your gender your race."

KultureCity has created six sensory rooms across Birmingham including the McWayne Center and the Birmingham Shuttlesworth Airport. The non-profit says it will continue building more sensory rooms around Birmingham and surrounding areas. If the effort works, it might make the circle of life for Knight and her family a little easier.

Baillee Majors is the Morning Edition host and a reporter at Alabama Public Radio.
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