NBA Games, Other Big Events Can Cause Sensory Overload. This Nonprofit Found A Solution

Former Orlando Magic star Nick Anderson, second from right, chats with attendees in a suite overlooking the NBA game Orlando Magic vs. Washington Wizards at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Events With Jonathan takes advantage of the generosity of companies and organizations that give away their corporate suites so that those with sensory and logistical barriers can enjoy various events. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Jason Eichenholz wants his son, Jonathan, to be able to enjoy a live basketball game like anyone else.

But when the couple attended a game at the Amway Center about 10 years ago, their son found the crowd, lights and loud sounds extremely uncomfortable and they had to leave early. Jonathan Eichenholz, now 18, is on the autism spectrum. The developmental disorder is diagnosed in approximately 1 in 36 American children, many of whom experience difficulties in sensory processing.

Several years after that unfortunate outing, the family went to a game again. This time they sat in a corporate suite. Jonathan found that the large space, smaller crowd and glass barrier allowed him to enjoy the game and they stayed there the entire time.

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Jason Eichenholz, a local tech entrepreneur who co-founded a company now valued at more than $1 billion, knew that most families couldn’t afford corporate suites like these. He also knew that many nights these glass observation rooms remained empty. So, he started Events with Jonathan. Orlando Magic corporate suite owners donate their suites to this program, which then hosts organizations throughout Central Florida that serve people with disabilities. This step is one of many recent efforts to make Central Florida more inclusive.

“People who wouldn’t normally be able to enjoy a night at a Magic game or concert or something… The events with Jonathan are just a way we can give them a normal night out,” Jason Eichenholz said. “Give them hope that other people have their best interests at heart and want to be included.”

The program launched last season and allowed 150 participants from 10 organizations to attend 10 events, including Magic games and a Disney on Ice presentation. The Orlando Magic, the city of Orlando, Insurance Office of America, Construction Unlimited and Massey Services gave away suites, Eichenholz said. In addition to children with autism, other groups serving veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, people with Down syndrome and people who use wheelchairs have enjoyed the suites.

This season, the Orlando Magic made Events With Jonathan an official community partner and hopes to host groups for at least 25 games. Organizations interested in giving away their corporate suites can contact Eichenholz’s nonprofit, while organizations interested in attending Events With Jonathan can subscribe to the newsletter through the website to stay up to date on when they will be available future opportunities.

Eichenholz attributes the success of his program to the connections he had in Orlando through his business experience. But he also knows that this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t thought like a father.

“I was wearing my dad’s hat. It’s not my executive hat,” he said. “We created Events with Jonathan to set my son and others with special needs up for success.”

Terri Daly, director of UCF’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), praised the idea and agreed that parents have propelled Central Florida forward.

“You could write a whole five-page article about how many things parents have created for their children,” Daly said.

These suites still have potentially overwhelming sights and sounds, just at a less intense level, he advised.

If attendees feel overwhelmed, they can move to a quiet, uncrowded hallway or another space to calm down. (You arrive at the suites on a different floor than the rest of the thousands of fans use during a Magic game.)

Other amenities are also included with the suites, such as specialized food menus and sensory kits with tools like headphones. There are no costs to attendees or organizations beyond parking.

Similar inclusive activities are available throughout Central Florida for those who aren’t sports fans: from quiet rooms at theme parks to a farm and petting zoo in Lake County, Puzzle Ranch, which houses people with disabilities and their families or caregivers for free on certain days.

This progress is excellent, although there is still much to do, Daly said.

“I think it’s good that these things are developing,” Daly said. “There’s still a long way to go, especially as people become adults.”

In the coming years, Jason Eichenholz hopes to help address those issues as well.

The events with Jonathan are just one part of his larger vision for Jonathan’s Landing, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to build a residential community with housing and employment opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum.

“A parent’s number one nightmare is: What will happen to my child after I’m gone?” Eichenholz said. “We want to be able to bring these kids (I call them kids, they can be 40 years old) and get them to a place where they can thrive, grow and gain the life skills necessary to do so.”

© 2023 Orlando Sentinel
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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