OPINION: When tailgating, consider those with sensory processing issues

The first USC home football game is Saturday, marking the beginning of tailgating season. Filled with food, music and other festivities, tailgating is a staple of the college football experience, and offers students a way to be closer as a Trojan Family. But, they are not always fun for everyone. The massive crowds, loud noises and strong smells of various foods and drinks can create an overwhelming environment for individuals with sensory processing disorders and prevent them from enjoying an otherwise positive experience. Although they are commonly overlooked, Trojans with sensory processing needs still deserve to experience game day. There are some simple steps that the University can take to advocate for the needs of their peers with SPD.

Sensory processors allow the human nervous system to receive messages from the outside world and respond to these cues accordingly. An individual has a sensory processing disorder when their nervous system cannot interpret and react to the signals from their senses appropriately. Symptoms of SPD fall on a wide spectrum and are surprisingly common. One in six children have sensory symptoms that can impact their everyday lives, according to the STAR Institute for sensory processing disorders. Some people with SPD overreact to stimuli, as loud noises, bright lights or excessive touch can feel overwhelming. Others underreact and therefore feel the need to expose themselves to intense sensory stimuli.

Sensory processing issues can make certain environments uncomfortable, especially when there are crowds involved. For Trojans with sensory processing needs, tailgating on gameday is a difficult task. Between the loud music, juxtaposing smells and different conversations happening at once, someone with SPD may begin to feel overwhelmed and exhausted fairly early on in the day. If they continue to be subjected to too much stimuli, they could experience a panic attack or meltdown; because of these risks, some with the disorder try to avoid these events completely. Others choose to avoid the risk of an embarrassing meltdown and stay home completely.

To foster a more inclusive environment, tailgaters should be aware of the stimuli they put out and be informed of the issues their classmates may be struggling with. The University should invest in signs to put around the tailgating area to limit noise pollution, and create educational materials about SPD.

The existing tailgating rules — such as ensuring devices don’t play music louder than five feet away — should be followed, but students can still do more. If a tent nearby is already blasting music, students can elect not to play any at theirs. They can also use closed containers for drinks and not leave waste lying around, which can be helpful for those who can’t handle too many smells at once.

The ultimate way the University could help would be by creating an area for people who feel overwhelmed or exhausted at tailgates to go to when they need a break from the stimuli. The area can offer free earplugs, sunglasses or even stress balls for those with sensory processing needs to help them when they do go back to the main tailgating area. It can also be a place where they can fidget as much as they need without questions asked.

Students should also learn to recognize when a person with SPD is becoming agitated and be patient if they have a meltdown. Take deep breaths with them or introduce another form of stimulus, like a hair brush or textured item, to calm them down. If they seem to be a danger to themself or others, remain calm and get out of the area.

For those with SPD, a trustworthy friend is a valuable resource during a tailgate. It’s easy to get lost in gameday’s exhilarating environment, so having someone to keep them grounded and advocate for them in the crowd is helpful. Go over which forms of stimuli can act as triggers beforehand, and carry items that block out stimulus. Having someone who understands and knows what warning signs to look for can also make those with SPD feel more reassured and grounded.

It’s important to remember that sensory processing disorder is normal. There is no need for someone who has it to feel embarrassed or excluded from engaging in college activities. Normalizing SPD and advocating for those who have it can make high-stimulus events like tailgates far more enjoyable.