For kids with autism, a day at the races with NASCAR - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

For kids with autism, a day at the races with NASCAR

Updated: May 31, 2013 10:02 AM EDT
© iStockphoto / Thinkstock © iStockphoto / Thinkstock
By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, May 31 (HealthDay News) -- In one key way, Brandon Brooking is like millions of other 16-year-old American boys: He loves NASCAR.

But Brandon is also affected by autism, making it a bit tougher to enjoy the speedway sport up close.

"Like many people with autism, Brandon focuses on one thing -- and for Brandon that thing is racing," said Melissa Brooking, Brandon's mom. "My husband is a NASCAR fan, and for Brandon it started about four or five years ago. There's just something about it he loves. He can't write his name or read, but he knows everything about every single person involved in car racing -- the flagmen, the crew, the drivers."

The trouble is, she said, "We never tried to take him to an actual race, because we knew it'd be way beyond what he can handle. The noise and the crowds -- it would just create a lot of anxiety and could turn into him getting really upset. So he watches it at home."

But that will change June 3 when the Brookings go as a family -- Brandon included -- to the second-annual autism-friendly Day at the Races NASCAR rally at Dover Motorsports in Dover, Del., about a three-hour drive from the Brooking's home in Pennsylvania.

"When one day last year I saw online that [advocacy group] Autism Speaks was doing an autism-friendly day with NASCAR, I was ecstatic," Melissa said. "'I said, 'I don't care if we gotta sell the house! We are going!'"

In June 2012, the whole family attended the first such event, also called the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks, in recognition of FedEx's title sponsorship of the event.

Last year's track-side gathering of 135 special-needs spectators marked the first time NASCAR and Autism Speaks joined forces to make the "sensory overload" that is car racing accessible to children with autism and their families.

Collaborating with race broadcaster Fox Sports and Dover Motorsports Inc., the all-day event offers participants special access to an air-conditioned indoor grandstand with a clear but noise-controlled view of the "Monster Mile" racetrack below.

In addition, special "quiet zones" have been created, offering families a safe space for any agitated children, should the need arise. These tranquil spaces feature muted lighting, reduced sound and comfortable seating (including giant bean bags), as well as games, toys, food and video screens that offer continuous access to the race underway.

Autism Speaks volunteers and autism educators will be on hand as well, and NASCAR drivers and team owners will stop by pre-race to visit with the kids.

"The thing that makes this opportunity so phenomenal is that it gives the kids and the parents a safe and anxiety-free chance to be together as a family," said Artie Kempner, coordinating director of NASCAR on FOX and the parent of a child on the autism spectrum. "Because the first thing to understand about autism is that it's really a family disability in a lot of ways. The impact on the family is enormous. It impacts everything a family does and takes a toll on everybody."

"Just to bring an autistic kid out to a typical race with all the noise and stimuli would be enormously difficult," said Kempner, who also is an Autism Speaks board member. "But the environment created at Dover addressed that anxiety and took it out of the equation. It's a controlled and welcoming and comfortable space, surrounded by parents who have seen it all and staffed by incredibly supportive people -- right down to the drivers themselves, who were actually really excited and impressed by the whole thing."

"There are a couple of drivers who have children or nieces or nephews on the spectrum, so this was something that was meaningful to them," Kempner said.

A case in point is NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray, who attended last year's race and has a niece with autism. McMurray also is the president of the Jamie McMurray Foundation, which is dedicated to raising awareness and funds for autism research.

"I enjoyed the chance to meet some of the families last year at this event," McMurray said. "The whole weekend at Dover is great, with all the attention that it generates for autism awareness."

About 300 children with autism and their family members are expected to attend this year's Day at the Races.

Mark Rossi, vice president of sales and marketing at Dover Motorsports and a member of Autism Delaware, was an early participant in organizing the event.

"If we can provide access to families and at the same time leverage this sport to help create awareness and educate the public about what's going on with people with autism and their families, then I think this event is very, very worthwhile," he said.

Melissa Brooking couldn't agree more.

"Last year's race met my expectations and more," she said. "For me, the biggest thing was that as a family we were able to do something that we never ever thought we'd be able to do. It was amazing. And Brandon is aware and absolutely ecstatic that it's going to happen again. Honestly, if you understand my son and his love of racing, it's like hitting the lottery."

More information

Find out more about the event at Autism Speaks.

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