PHILADELPHIA -- Most people don't think much about going to see a Phillies game. It's pretty simple, relaxing and fun.
For families affected by autism, it's different. Going anywhere in public is fraught with hidden dangers that can lead to frustration and embarrassment. Many stop going out at all.
That's what Dr. Wendy Ross, who founded the non-profit Autism Inclusion Awareness (AIR) in 2011, kept hearing from parents she worked with.
"They would describe to me that they would have a child who would look typical on the outside," Dr. Ross said. "But for various reasons, either the impact of new sensory information, not knowing what is expected in a new environment or not having the language to express themselves, children with autism can be more likely to have extreme reactions."
Major League Baseball has teamed up with Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group, on an initiative to recognize Autism Awareness Month. The Phillies have sponsored an Autism Night for years. This season, along with Aramark and Theraplay and working with Dr. Ross, they've gone several steps beyond that.
Families with autistic children were invited to Saturday night's game against the Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park. Each had a clinician available in case an uncomfortable situation arose. Philadelphia City Councilman Dennis O'Brien, who has long been an advocate for autistic children, was also part of the group.
"This is awesome," said Ekeoma Ekeleme-Washington, who sat in Section 236 on Saturday night with her family, including daughter Zaire Whaley. "One thing about children with special needs is that they don't get a lot of opportunity to participate in a lot of different activities. This is Zaire's thing. She loves baseball. And I love having the opportunity to bring her to games.
"Autism has a social aspect. And there are some times when kids are afraid or the noise level [bothers them]. It can be challenging for a lot of families. For an average person, big crowds can be intimidating. So I can just imagine a child with social issues. So this is good. It's beneficial."
A few rows away, Suzy Gladstone sat next to her son, Seth, and the rest of the family.
"Having a clinician at the game is really helpful because sometimes you can't predict what kind of help you'll need at the game. It could be helping with the behavior of your child living with autism," Gladstone said. "Or maybe it's just helping the family in general with the other siblings here as well.
"I think this program is really fantastic because it does offer families living with autism a great resource. When you come to a game, you never know what can happen."
But those few hours were the result of an extraordinary amount of preparation.
During the On Deck Series at the end of March, Dr. Ross and a volunteer photographer came to Citizens Bank Park and took hundreds of pictures for her website. These were posted to help illustrate a primer on how to prepare for a game and what to expect after arrival. There are tip sheets and pictures of various aspects of what the experience will be like.
Once the season began, there were about 25 sessions during which she educated some 3,000 Phillies gameday employees, supervisors, staff and vendors about dealing with individuals with autism.
"Her whole point was, these are families that may not necessarily have the opportunity to get out," said Eric Tobin, Phillies director of operations and events. "Not just to see a baseball game. They may have restrictions going out to do fun activities and fun things. So this is to give them the opportunity to get out and be entertained and maybe come to a ballgame and become a Phillies fan.
"She gave us information. Some of the children may not speak. So how to speak to them, just being calm and using literal language. Simple one-step directions. Our goal is to let the parents know that if they need help, we're here to help them and make sure that the staff knows we're here to help anybody with a disability, frankly, whatever we can do in our power to make their experience a good one."
"I can't tell you how amazing these people are," Dr. Ross said. "Even though I was added to their night, they sat and they were interested and they were problem-solving with me. Because they obviously know more about the park, what could be done in certain situations."
And there was still more. Several families practiced last Tuesday by going to the Liberty Bell Classic, a tournament involving Division I college teams. There were only about 400 people in attendance, but the Phillies set up turnstiles and security checkpoints, opened the ticket windows and even had an operational concession stand to make the experience as realistic as possible.
"Our family had not previously imagined that we could attend such an event with this level of success, and we feel compelled to tell you how thrilled we were to participate," one parent emailed Dr. Warren. "Pierce had a very good experience -- and he was able to work through typical stressors such as waiting in line, walking through turnstiles, and moving from activity to activity with less difficulty than we would have expected ... . With this 'practice run,' our family has the confidence to attend a sporting event later in the season, and we anticipate the ability to attend other activities which we typically would not have attempted."
Dr. Ross, who has also worked with museums and airlines, said that this is the bottom line, to ultimately prepare families to be independent enough to do these things on their own.
"It's different for different kids in different families," Dr. Ross said. "Our anticipation is that we'll support the families initially. They'll gain confidence. If there are problems, we'll help them problem-solve. We'll present them with materials. Some families might want to just use the materials on my website.
"Hopefully, then they'll feel more comfortable going on their own. That won't be the same for everybody, for every family. But that's the goal."
And her goal is to continue to expand AIR's program to public transportation, to Philadelphia's other sports teams and to wherever autistic children and their families don't have the independence to venture.
"My non-profit is supported through donations on the website. I donated my own time and paid for most of the resources myself. I asked colleagues to volunteer. What we really want to do is create a standard. We want to measure outcomes," Dr. Ross said. "I would love to have people go to my website [www.autismir.com] and see the resources and use them. If they could support us that would also be great. I would love to be able to raise enough money so that I could do the research to create something that can be standardized and spread with fidelity across MLB and other settings to reach the most people in the most responsible way."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.