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The Atlanta Braves are making games way more accessible for fans with autism

Ten-year-old Gavi Surden loves the game of baseball and watching his hometown team, the Atlanta Braves.

He watches every game. But until recently, going to a game in person for Gavi, who has autism, could be difficult. The enormous crowds, loud sounds and long lines could sometimes overwhelm the young fan.

But the Atlanta Braves’ new Exceptional Fans Program is changing the game day experience for Gavi and other children with autism.

Gavi Surden at SunTrust Park last month. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A couple years ago, the Braves reached out to the Marcus Autism Center and The Global Autism Project to help assemble a plan to make Braves games more accessible and enjoyable for fans on the autism spectrum. From establishing quiet rooms for children who may need a break to providing special, detailed maps of the ballpark that identify sensory-heavy areas where fireworks go off and where the “Big Drum” is located, the Braves are taking several steps to boost support for an often left-behind fan base.

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About one in 59 children are diagnosed with autism, according to a new estimate by the Centers Disease Control and Prevention, a number that has grown significantly over the past several years. In 2008, one in 88 children were diagnosed with autism; in 2000, it was one in 150, according to the CDC.

The program, believed to the first of its kind for a Major League Baseball team, includes the following elements:

• 1,000 trained ballpark ushers who, for example, can tell a mascot not to approach a certain fan.

• Noise cancelling headphones to help with the din of crowds and PA systems.

• “Quiet rooms” offering respite if things get overwhelming.

• Special “VIP” lanyards containing emergency information such as a parents’ cell phone numbers in case the child wanders off or gets lost and a list of special requests or sensitivities such as “I don’t like to be touched.”

• Before the game, children are given a “social story” so they know what to expect during their visit to the stadium. The story includes photos of the ballpark, the metal detectors at the entrance, the concession stands and the Heavy Hitter drum line.

• A special Accessible Seating Department hotline has been established. Guests who purchase tickets through this number will receive a welcome kit containing a sensory map and Braves Exceptional Fan credential that allows the child to skip lines. Call 404-577-9100 (option 5) or e-mail accessibleservices@braves.com for information.

Gavi Surden (left), 10, who has autism, races his brother Noah, 6, in the first base dash at the kids friendly area of SunTrust Park while taking part in the Braves Exceptional Fans Program.Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

On a late May evening under gray skies, the Surden family of Marietta arrived early and headed to the kid friendly Sandlot. Gavi and his younger brother, Noah, 6, happily played carnival games and sprinted to first base, clocking their times in a base-running challenge. The family also toured Monument Garden, which celebrates Braves history, and admired the 755 bats sculpture across from the Hank Aaron’s statue, symbolizing the baseball legend’s since-shattered record number of career home runs.

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Gavi and his dad Todd Surden take in a display of the bronzed ball and glove used by John Sain during the 1948 World Series while attending the baseball game against the Mets as part of the Braves Exceptional Fans Program at SunTrust Park on May 29 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Gavi is a rule follower who likes structure, said his mother, Lauren Surden. That’s why he quickly took to the game of baseball, where there are three outs per inning, three strikes per at bat and 27 outs in a regulation game. It’s a game built on rules and fairness. For Gavi, it’s a game that makes sense.

A rising fifth grader, Gavi, who has high functioning autism, takes advanced classes at school but sometimes struggles with social cues. Baseball has helped him connect with classmates, as well as his brother Noah. First baseman Freedie Freeman is their favorite player.

The Surden family already had plans to return for another game in a few days. Even though her family has not needed to use the quiet rooms or noise cancelling headphones (they bring their own just in case), Surden praised the Braves for implementing new measures to ensure a warm environment for children with autism.

“The fact that the organization has a plan and knowing this organization want us here,” said Surden. “It’s a game changer.”

The Exceptional Fans Program grew out of the Autism Awareness Day events the ballpark has hosted for several years. According to Chandler Faccento, who works in guest services, his colleague Mary Elizabeth Woodward asked the question in a meeting a couple of years ago, Why just one day? Why don’t we take steps to make every game more welcoming to children with special needs?

So far, participation in the program has been limited, but Faccento expects the number to rise as more families learn about the program.

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Atlanta Braves guest services employee Christopher Waters welcomes Gavi and his dad Todd Surden to their seats. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

After the Surdens took their seats in the 100s section, Braves usher Christopher Waters noticed Gavi’s Exceptional Fan credential and approached the family. “I’m here if you need anything,” he said, promising to alert them if the drummers traveled down the concourse.

“We know this is a safe place for us and we are accepted,” said Gavi’s dad, Todd Surden. “This shows they are an inclusive organization and care about all of their fans.”

The family of four watched the game intently. After a rain delay, they left early. It was approaching 10 p.m. and everyone was getting tired. When they left, the Braves were down 6-3. Early the next morning, Noah woke up his big brother with the news: the Braves had rallied and won with a walk-off homer by Johan Camargo. Gavi jumped up to watch it on his iPad.

Later this summer, Gavi will go to sleepaway camp. He already asked his parents for one particular book to take with him — the official MLB rule book 2018 edition.

Gavi and Noah play a game of chop a mole in the kids friendly area of SunTrust Park as part of the Braves Exceptional Fans Program. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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