New Orleans Saints Vice President of Football Administration Khai Harley met with New Orleans media prior to the second and third rounds of the NFL draft Friday to spread awareness for Autism Acceptance month.
Harley said Friday's third-round Saints draft pick was scheduled to be announced by a representative from KultureCity, a non-profit organization which trains venue staff to deal with sensory issues related to autism. In fact, the Saints and Pelicans partnered with KultureCity in 2021 to put sensory rooms into the Caesars Superdome and Smoothie King Center.
"It was very personal to me," Harley said. "People spend a lot of money to come to our games and support us, and there's a whole community out there of people who would like to come to games and would like to enjoy these experiences but don't have the opportunity to do so."
Harley has a daughter who is 16 years old, and she was diagnosed when she was 3 years old. Harley said he remembers not knowing much about the disease when he found out about the diagnoses.
"More can go toward research and trying to find out those answers, but in addition to finding answers is finding help for people who need it," Harley said.
The sensory rooms provide a quiet space for people who are autistic to go when they are overwhelmed. New Orleans also provides sensory bags that contain objects like fidget spinners to help soothe whatever the person is dealing with at the time. Harley said it is a multi-purpose room, meaning people not on the spectrum can also use the room if needed.
Harley also said the entire gameday staff has been trained to identify people with sensory issues. He added the Saints want to show their support as an organization to the community at large.
"Mrs. Benson was fully on board with trying to implement (the sensory rooms) and has been fully supportive," Harley said.
The Saints are not the only NFL organization attempting to spread awareness of Autism Acceptance. The Philadelphia Eagles founded the Eagles Autism Foundation, and Harley said more teams across multiple sports have started to add sensory rooms to their stadiums and train their staff. He said the vast majority of teams in the NFL have these rooms in their stadiums today.
"It's satisfying, but it's just the start," Harley said. "It'll be more satisfying to see more clubs do it. It'll be more satisfying when it becomes a league issue. ... I look at it as a good starting point, and it's a warm feeling to know it's being received well."
Harley said he realizes how difficult having an autistic child can be, and he knows not everyone has the resources his family has.
"I try to be helpful wherever I can," he said. "There's a warm part of me and my family that wants to help."
Harley said his goal is to make the NFL Draft a tentpole event for autism awareness — April is Autism Acceptance month — and he said he met with a collection of teams about raising awareness.
"Everything has to start somewhere," Harley said. "This is one of those universal issues that affects a world of people… As a country, we don't have a lot of support for these people when they become adults… I just want to do my part to try and help."