'Gamechangers' aim to make B.C. Lions football more autism friendly

A raucous football stadium may not be the ideal environment for a child with autism spectrum disorder, but a new initiative by the B.C. Lions is hoping to change that.

BC Place may not the best place for a child with autism but a new initiative could change that

The B.C. Lions have partnered with the Pacific Autism Family Network to make home games a better experience for families affected by autism spectrum disorder. (B.C. Lions)

A raucous football stadium may not be the ideal environment for a child with autism spectrum disorder, but a new initiative by the B.C. Lions is hoping to change that.

The program is called Gamechangers, and the idea is to make Lions' home games at BC Place more autism friendly.

"When it comes to stadium size events, a lot of families can't attend because it can be extremely overwhelming for those on the spectrum and with related disorders," said Laura Lombardi, vice-president of the Pacific Autism Family Network.

"Lights, large crowds, loud noise — everything is amplified."

The crowds and noise of a big stadium like BC Place can be overwhelming to children on the autism spectrum. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Gamechangers will host 20 families per game, providing tickets in a reserved section of the stadium, along with a toolkit containing noise cancelling headphones, earplugs, sensory toys and a visual stadium map and game notes for the child affected by autism.

Lombardi's group brought the idea for the program to the Lions after hearing about a similar one run by the Seattle Seahawks.

Rave reviews

"From what I understand we're the first in the CFL ... and the first [pro sports team] in Canada to have a program like this," said Lions vice-president George Chayka.

The Lions and the Pacific Family Autism Network piloted Gamechangers last month at the season opener against Edmonton to rave reviews.

"It went very well," said Chayka. "I know there's a wait list for the upcoming games already."

Gamechangers will officially launch this Friday when the Lions host Winnipeg. Lombardi said they'd like to find a sponsor so the program could be expanded to 100 families per game.

She said autism rates in Canada are "through the roof," noting that one in 68 people are now being diagnosed; one in 42 for boys.

"We want to create awareness in the community and take steps to create more inclusive environments."  

The Lions have committed to supporting Gamechangers through to the end of the season. 

"Football is all about family," said Chayka. "We are both proud and honoured to ... bring the joy, excitement and fun of B.C. Lions football to those who would not normally be able to attend games."