- Associated Press - Thursday, October 6, 2016

CHARLESTON, Ill. (AP) - Steps are being taken to make Eastern Illinois University athletic games more accessible to those with autism or other similar sensory disabilities, starting off with the upcoming football game Saturday.

The EIU Student Council for Exceptional Children sought to make events, as of now, football games, A-OK accessible.

Jen Mazurkiewicz, council president-elect, said the A-OK program, started in Tulsa, Okla., is designed to make going to events like sports games an easier experience for people with those disabilities as well as their families.

The program provides families with a child with autism or another sensory disability a bag when they come to the game with various items to make the experience more smooth and to include those with these disabilities.

“If there is a lot of noise or too many sensory things, like too many things going on, then it can cause a meltdown for students,” said Mazurkiewicz. “The bags help prevent that or reduce the sensory input.”

After learning of A-OK from the Seattle Seahawks’ involvement, the council members saw this as a good option to include those with autism and other similar disabilities in community events.

The council will be at the upcoming football game between the EIU Panthers and Tennessee State University Tigers scheduled to start at 6 p.m. Saturday at O’Brien Field to hand out the free bags to those with families with children who have those sensory-stimulated disabilities.

Mazurkiewicz said they will have about 20 bags, one per family, at the upcoming game filled with items meant to make the experience of going to the game relaxing.

The bags will include noise-reducing earmuffs, earplugs and manipulative toys similar to the functions of a stress ball for the child to focus on.

The bag will also include a detailed schedule of the game including how long, roughly, the quarters will run and when and what will happen during half-time so they can be prepared for what will happen.

“Children with autism really like to be prepared and be on a schedule and know what comes next,” Mazurkiewicz said. “That’s one of the big things for them just to be aware of what is happening. So, to have the schedule, it provides something more concrete and it just helps them to be able to enjoy the game more.”

Mazurkiewicz said for some of those with the disability, going to events like a game is problematic, largely due to the noise level.

“If there is too much stimulation there, then it will cause the student to have a meltdown, which can seem like a temper tantrum to someone who doesn’t really know,” she said. “Some families are not always comfortable with that.”

The A-OK bags are designed to eliminate or diminish those worries, making those with the disabilities more comfortable, and encourage families with autistic children to attend these types of events knowing they are more accessible.

Currently, the council members plan to be at a number of basketball and football games, however, they will not be at all of them.

Mazurkiewicz said for the future, they are also looking to be at high school games and other types of community events, but they are still in preliminary stages of implementing the program at Eastern.

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Source: Mattoon Journal-Gazette and (Charleston) Times-Courier, http://bit.ly/2cUzxDc

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Information from: Mattoon Journal-Gazette, http://www.jg-tc.com

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