By Brian Smith
Brandon Booking, a 15-year-old child out of Palmerton, Pa., is quite the NASCAR fan. His knowledge of the sport puts him above and beyond the level of knowledge most fans possess.
“He actually knows all the drivers,” said Brandon’s mother, Melissa. “He knows a lot of their pit crew chiefs, he knows their numbers. Even facial recognition — when they come on TV, he knows who they are.”
As such a big NASCAR fan, the opportunity to attend a live race is as thrilling as it gets for someone like Brandon. But, because Brandon is diagnosed on the autism spectrum, being able to attend a race is a lot easier said than done.
- Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, stopped by to visit and talk with the kids during “Autism Speaks Day at the Races.” (Gary Buchanan photo)
Any parent who’s taken their child to a NASCAR race knows that sometimes there is quite a bit of excitement for the child to take in.
Parents of children with autism face a whole additional set of challenges. Because of the constant activity, and vibrant sights and sounds, many families with children on the autism spectrum could be hesitant about bringing their child to a NASCAR race because of the potential for sensory overload to occur.
But for the first time ever, Dover International Speedway, Autism Speaks and FedEx created a ticket package that gave dozens of families affected by the spectrum disorder the chance to experience a NASCAR race in a sensory friendly environment for the June 3 “FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
In essence, the all-new “Autism Speaks Day at the Races” ticket package created the opportunity of a lifetime for those like Brandon and the Bookings.
“Brandon has always been a huge NASCAR fan, but between the crowds and the noise, [bringing him to a race] just couldn’t happen,” Melissa said. “So when I saw that this was going to happen, we were so ecstatic. It’s a normal thing for all of us to do, but for Brandon, it’s a huge deal to bring him to something like this. For him to have the opportunity to be here, he’s just overwhelmed and so are we.”
The partnership between the Monster Mile and Autism Speaks is now six years old, with both parties constantly working to find ways to generate funds and awareness for the cause during the Dover spring race weekend. This marked the second straight year that FedEx has joined with Autism Speaks as the title sponsor of the Dover spring NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. The “Autism Speaks Day at the Races” ticket option is the most recent step in that evolution with approximately 65 families taking advantage of the first-ever autism friendly NASCAR race.
- The “Autism Speaks Day at the Races” program featured a number of games and interactivites to entertain the children. (Gary Buchanan photo)
“Since that first year, we’ve always tried to do something to encourage families with autism to come out to the track,” said Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks. “So many families tell us their children love NASCAR and they’d like to be part of the experience. For some families, being outside in a grandstand could be OK, but for many families, the noise, the smell, the sensory part of it can be overwhelming.”
The unprecedented setup featured seating specially designed for families with children on the autism spectrum, Roithmayr said. The indoor, air conditioned grandstands along the backstretch of the Monster Mile became a dedicated area for the families. The indoor seating provided a buffer against the elements of a live NASCAR race that could be disruptive to those on the autism spectrum.
Tickets were $88 for adults — representative of the one in 88 children being diagnosed with autism today — and $20 for the kids. A portion of the proceeds were donated back to Autism Speaks.
Conference rooms located in the back of the indoor grandstands were also converted for the ticket package, creating a quiet room environment that Roithmayr said was a necessity to give the children a break from the action.
“Even if indoors on the backstretch it got to be too much, there’s a quiet room where the noise is completely muted, the lights are dimmed a little bit, we have toys and activities that are specially designed and donated by Toys R Us,” he said. “There are TV monitors in there so parents can go in there and still watch the race.”
- Ollie’s Bargain Outlet donated beanbag chairs, a highlight for the kids in the quiet room. (Gary Buchanan photo)
In addition, Ollie’s Bargain Outlet donated beanbag chairs for the quiet rooms to put the finishing touches on the environment.
The grandstand and quiet room were staffed with volunteers from Autism Speaks and the University of Delaware, and throughout the day NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, as well as team owner Joe Gibbs, dropped in to meet the children and their families.
In addition, members of Autism Speaks filled out the program for the morning, giving brief presentations on topics such as “Living on the Spectrum,” “Autism Speaks in the Community” and a science briefing on transitional research in relation to autism.
The program, in its first year, was a resounding success and something that gave many children, including Brandon, a life experience they may never have had.
“We’re so thankful to Autism Speaks and Dover for doing this because had they not, [Brandon] may have never had the opportunity to see something that he truly loves and watches seven days a week on TV,” Melissa said.
To read more stories about “Autism Speaks Day at the Races,” click any of the links below.
Wilmington News Journal