Think back to the last time you went to a sporting event. Try to remember what it was like to be amongst the crowd of fans - hearing cheers, smelling food, and taking it all in. Now, imagine that you are taking your child to the game for the first time, and your child has autism. 

When the Worcester Red Sox were building their brand-new ballpark for the team’s 2021 inaugural season as the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, the team reached out to MGH Institute  Assistant Professor Dr. Mary Beth Kadlec, who also is program director at UMass Memorial Health’s Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (CANDO). 

The center is a collaboration between UMass Memorial Health and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester that provides a variety of services for youth and adults who have complex emotional and behavioral challenges in combination with an autism or neurodevelopmental disorder.

Allison Klowan, a student in the entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy program who was doing her Advanced Doctoral Experience (ADE) with Kadlec, joined her mentor to make a series of suggestions that helped Polar Park be a more sensory friendly and accessible place for people with disabilities, providing a valuable community service. 

“Part of the ADE process is to engage in advocacy and leadership, among other professional areas of interest,” said Klowan, noting that occupational therapists are experts on environmental modifications. “I was brought onto this project by Mary Beth because it’s an area of interest for me, so it was a very exciting opportunity.”

Kadlec and Klowan made several suggestions about how to furnish a new sensory-friendly room. It included such things as a large couch, beanbag chairs, floor crash pads, window coverings, and even a tent if someone wanted to have their own space. 

“The room is intended as an inclusive, safe space for individuals with sensory-processing disorder, who may have hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to various sensory stimuli and who might become over-stimulated during a game,” Klowan said, who added she and Kadlec gave additional advice about accessibility improvements on entering the park, seating options, locations for persons using wheelchairs, and even where to put signs directing people to the sensory room.

And while Klowan is not the biggest of baseball fans – “I’ve been to Fenway a few times” – she’s looking forward to seeing their suggestions in action. “I’d love to go to Polar Park to see a game and check out the room,” she said. 

Once crowd-size pandemic restrictions are lifted, hopefully she’ll be able to do just that.