Sports are a unifying force that transcends borders, languages and cultures. Yet for neurodivergent individuals, the highly stimulating environments of stadiums, ballparks and arenas can present significant barriers to participation.
In this piece, we explore ways to help fans prepare for an event, the arrival experience, wayfinding and accessibility, seating options, and the impact on athletes and venue staff. By thoughtfully addressing these touchpoints, our Sports + Recreation + Entertainment practice is crafting more inclusive environments that cater to the needs of all fans, regardless of their neurological makeup.
Teams can use their mobile app or email list to conduct a brief fan survey on the sensory needs of ticket holders in advance of an event. This gives the team’s guest services department ample time to prepare and welcome those with sensory processing disorders to the venue on game day. It also helps with the creation of future strategies to improve the experience for neurodivergent fans.
Providing neurodivergent individuals with prepared reading materials and video content can help them understand what to expect at the game. They will feel more comfortable if they know in advance how to navigate the stadium, locate sensory rooms and access any additional resources during the live event. Additionally, teams should clearly communicate accommodations available for neurodivergent individuals, such as designated seating areas, quiet zones and sensory kits.
Lastly, it is crucial for teams to invest in neurodiversity training for staff members,
2. The Arrival Experience
Teams should create a welcoming environment for neurodivergent fans from the moment they arrive at the venue.
Long lines and confusing ticketing processes can be overwhelming for neurodivergent fans. To minimize stressors and distractions, teams can implement design strategies that streamline these touchpoints. One approach is offering online ticket purchasing and digital ticketing options, reducing the need for fans to engage in potentially stressful in-person transactions.
Providing a separate security line and entrance, or welcoming these fans and those accompanying them to the event through a premium entrance, can reduce another stress point and enhance the experience. Ideally, this entrance should be located close to guest services and feature calming music, soft lighting and art. If a separate entrance isn’t feasible, self-serve security scanners and ticketless entry, along with clear wayfinding, can give neurodivergent individuals more control over their entry experience.
Implementing priority access lines for neurodivergent fans and their companions can reduce waiting times and minimize anxiety. Teams also should consider pairing a concierge with fans who need extra assistance, helping them navigate to their seats and pointing them to other resources.
The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles provide support for neurodivergent fans by handing out sensory bags. These bags are equipped with noise-canceling headphones, a weighted lap pad, verbal cue cards and fidget toys. Details like this contribute to an increased level of hospitality and inclusivity.
3. Navigating the Venue: Wayfinding and Accessibility
One of the first hurdles neurodivergent fans may face is navigating the vast and complex layouts of sports facilities, especially when some NFL and international soccer stadiums encompass about 2 million square feet of space. To create a more inclusive environment, designers can implement clear and intuitive wayfinding by using universally understood symbols, clear signage and consistent design elements. Incorporating tactile, auditory and visual cues can accommodate diverse sensory needs.
The use of appropriate color, lighting and bold graphic elements can be powerful tools for helping fans navigate expansive spaces. In addition, memorable design features that are authentic to a city, like murals and artwork, can provide strong visual cues that are helpful in wayfinding for not only neurodiverse individuals but for children or those who don’t speak the language.
It’s essential to maintain continuity in the location, frequency and style of wayfinding signage to create predictability for all fans, not just neurodivergent individuals. Accessible paths of travel should also be ensured, with ample circulation space that accommodates wheelchairs and mobility aids while minimizing sensory overload triggers, such as tight corridors and abrupt turns.
Designers of sports facilities can embrace the concept of ‘prospect and refuge’ in concourse design, providing clear lines of sight and ample circulation with periodic spaces adjacent to the concourse for fans to step out of the path of others. This can reduce anxiety and create an increased sense of security.
Increasingly, teams are using geofencing in their mobile apps to support wayfinding and navigation. A fan’s movement from their seat, for example, might prompt a pop-up from the team app showing them the closest concessions and bathrooms and how to get there.
4. Flexible and Comfortable Seating Options
For many sports fans, the energy of the crowd, the surprise of the game and the subsequent cheers are what make the experience thrilling. However, these elements can feel overwhelming for neurodivergent fans and parents with young children. Incorporating inclusive seating arrangements and designated quiet spaces can enhance their experience and make stadiums more welcoming for all.
One such approach is to create nontraditional seating environments, similar to Atlanta Social at State Farm Arena. These spaces should be accessible to every fan and offer areas away from the seating bowl with TVs, food and beverage access, and soft seating options that provide autonomy over the experience. This additional access to personal space can benefit fans who are overwhelmed in the densely packed seating bowl with minimal space to move.
Flexible seating arrangements should be incorporated to accommodate diverse needs, such as adaptable seating for wheelchair users, families and groups requiring additional space. Clear sightlines must be provided so that all fans, regardless of their seating location, have unobstructed views of the action, promoting a sense of inclusion and participation.
Designated quiet zones in less crowded areas can serve as spaces for fans to retreat and find solace from sensory overload. If possible, these areas should be equipped with noise-canceling headphones, subdued soft and indirect lighting, comfortable seating, biophilic design components and access to fresh air and natural light. Material selections in these spaces should prioritize comfort and tranquility, and can include soft fabrics, sound-absorbing ceiling, wall and floor finishes, padded surfaces and more. It’s also important that the transition between the high-energy spaces in the facility to sensory spaces is thoughtful and natural.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ home, Lincoln Financial Field, is one example of a sensory-inclusive stadium. The team recently added a 500-sq.-ft. sensory room designed with input from medical professionals, providing neurodivergent fans a quiet space away from the action on the field, complete with sensory-inclusive amenities like dimmable lights, noise-reducing wall panels and calming visuals
5. Convenience and Choice for Amenities and Concessions
Prioritizing convenience and choice for amenities and concessions can significantly impact the fan experience, especially for neurodivergent individuals who may be more sensitive to long lines and chaotic environments.
Food and drink play a big part in the fan experience. Clear signage and menus are essential for fans to easily identify and locate concessions. Menus should feature clear descriptions, allergen information and sensory-friendly options to accommodate diverse dietary needs.
To minimize long, stressful lines and the potential for sensory overload, teams can leverage mobile ordering and pick-up options. In-seat ordering and delivery via mobile apps can streamline the process. For venues that may not have the staff to accommodate in-seat delivery for everyone, food lockers located in easily accessible spots near the seating bowl can provide fans with a better experience and autonomy over their visit.
Ample, easily identifiable restroom facilities should accommodate diverse needs, including all-gender restrooms and those with accessible stalls and changing tables. Ensuring accessibility to these facilities also demonstrates a commitment to inclusion.
6. Impact on Athletes and Staff
The needs of neurodivergent fans are not the only ones to consider in stadium design and operations. Staff and athletes may also require accommodations to ensure their well-being and optimal performance.
Back-of-house spaces should be designed with biophilic design elements, muted color choices, lighting selections and controls, and tactile materials. These enhancements can reduce stress and create a more enjoyable workplace.
Calming player lounges, nap pods, meditation spaces and private locker rooms can help athletes find respite from the high-pressure environment. Providing access to adequate nutrition and natural lighting can further support their well-being and performance.
Recognizing the importance of rest and relaxation for their student-athletes’ overall well-being, Clemson University has included nap pods, cocoon fitness pods and massage chairs at its Allen N. Reeves Football Operations Complex.
The Path Forward for Sports Venues
Both fans attending the game and the elite athletes making these experience possible stand to benefit from inclusive sports facility designs. What benefits neurodivergent fans, staff or athletes often proves advantageous for everyone.
By embracing a more inclusive approach to sports facility design, designers have a unique opportunity to increase awareness about neurodivergence and pave the way for more inclusive experiences for all. This results in a more vibrant and diverse fan community, enriching the overall experience for everyone. Consider the millions of fans who attend live sporting events each year. By prioritizing inclusivity, the sports industry can lead the way in creating community spacs that reflect the diversity and needs of the communities they serve.
Note: Neurodiversity is a term used to describe a broad range of conditions, some of which likely will be unresponsive to design solutions. HOK’s approach to inclusive design is based on our experience as designers and architects with the objective of providing a wide range of options for users with different needs. Any attempt to address the needs of neurodiverse individuals should also include review of human resources policies, implementation of technology solutions and building operations among other considerations. HOK does not represent that any design solution discussed in this article is capable of achieving any specific outcome for an individual user.
Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz Stadium interiors, pictured above, were designed by tvsdesign. HOK was the Associate Architect to Architect of Record Perkins + Will for Northwestern’s Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center, also pictured above.