Auburn University is the first university in the nation to possess a vehicle designed specifically to make community events accessible for those with sensory needs.
The Sensory Activation Vehicle, or SAV, is one of the programs offered by KultureCity, a Birmingham-based nonprofit dedicated to creating sensory accessibility and promoting inclusivity for all.
Assistant Professor Morgan Yordy, Associate Clinical Professor Ann Lambert and former student advisor Cassandra Jones in Auburn’s College of Nursing were looking for a way to increase inclusivity across campus and discovered KultureCity.
Alabama doctors Julian Maha and Michele Kong started the organization as a result of their son’s autism. It has provided sensory resources for 550 venues in five countries, including all major league baseball stadiums and basketball arenas in the United States. Other KultureCity programs include sensory certification and sensory bags.
Maha said Auburn is the first American university with a SAV.
“We know a lot of families attend Auburn athletic events,” said Yordy. “We also know that more children are facing mental health challenges, beyond conditions like autism and ADHD.”
Through the support of KultureCity and the Merrill Stewart family, Auburn Nursing has a SAV to utilize at events on campus and around the community. The acquisition will allow nursing faculty and students to provide a sanctuary for individuals who need to escape the loud noises and bustling activity at such events.
The SAV is not only a quiet place, which can be quieter with noise-cancelling headphones, but it contains interactive sensory stations to distract from an overstimulating environment and reduce anxiety.
Currently, Auburn Nursing occupies a portion of the first aid station of Neville Arena to provide a sensory room at gymnastics meets. Faculty use KultureCity sensory bags, which contain noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools and other resources, in this space. That is also where Auburn Nursing houses its Tiger Babies program.
Anna Kate Graham, a senior majoring in human development and family science in the College of Human Sciences and an intern in the College of Nursing, said she has noticed children at gymnastics meets who cover their ears to diminish the loud music and enthusiastic fans.
“It’s a lot of lights and a lot of noises,” said Graham. “We’re in the arena right now because parents aren’t aware that this exists for their children. We want to open that door, let people spend time inside and see what we have to offer.”
Nursing faculty has had much success with outreach programs involving Auburn Athletics. The Tiger Babies breastfeeding support tent opened in 2015 to provide a clean and comfortable environment for mothers to nurse prior to Auburn football games. Since 2018, a Tiger Babies station has had a permanent location inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, allowing mothers to nurse before and during football games. The first aid station in Neville Arena also provides such an environment.
Yordy and Lambert are optimistic they can develop a similar arrangement with Auburn Athletics and the SAV. They also want to provide the trailer at local community events.
“Auburn Athletics has been helpful and so welcoming with Tiger Babies, we’re hoping as we introduce more programs to help engage families, that athletics will come on board again, and we can expand throughout athletics,” Yordy said.
“It is something we’ll be proud to take to events on campus and beyond. SAV will be utilized not only on campus, but within the community as part of the SOUND program.”
Based on the line of the creed, “I believe in a sound mind, in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid…,” Yordy said Auburn Nursing coined the acronym SOUND for the program nursing will develop to support the SAV. SOUND stands for Sensory Outreach Under Nursing Direction.
For a son
Maha and Kong founded KultureCity so everyone, especially children, could enjoy group gatherings, like sporting events, music concerts and birthday parties.
“He loved going to these public events,” Maha recalled of his son, “but because of his sensory needs, he was one of those kids that couldn’t last the entire time as the crowds and the noise overwhelmed him. These trailers can help people regulate themselves, calm down and decompress in the privacy of the room.
“The trailers also educate the general community about the sensory needs of certain individuals and provide tools to organizations to help individuals to stay through an event so they can become part of the community.”
For those places or venues without a trailer or a permanent sensory room, KultureCity offers its sensory bags. In Alabama, staff at the Birmingham Zoo and McWane Science Center have access to the bags and, with KultureCity’s help, are trained on how and when to utilize them with visitors.
For the Auburn Family
Sensory issues aren’t limited to children. In fact, Maha said one in six individuals has a sensory need or an invisible disability, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, autism or dementia or is recovering from a stroke.
Yordy said the vehicle and SOUND program will be aimed to helping families enjoy all events together.
“Sensory needs are a common medical condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses,” explained Maha. “Common sounds, lights, crowds and even certain smells might not only be overwhelming, but also cause physical pain.
“Because of this, these individuals withdraw from communities, not by choice, but by circumstance as they worry about how the world will accept or include them. KultureCity changes that. We make the ‘nevers’ possible.”
KultureCity vows to “make the nevers possible by creating sensory accessibility and inclusion for those with invisible disabilities.” Its website contains videos of people who, thanks to KultureCity, can no longer say they never had a birthday party, attended a concert or ran a marathon.
Merrill H. Stewart Jr., founder, president and CEO of the Birmingham-based construction firm Stewart/Perry Company and an alumnus of Auburn’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, vowed that because of Auburn Nursing’s SAV, “lives will be better.”
Linda Gibson-Young, professor and outreach coordinator for Auburn Nursing, is certain the SAV will be the primary way nursing faculty and students will meet the needs of individuals with sensory needs.