For 15-year-old Brandon Brooking, spending an afternoon at Dover, Del. was an over-the-top experience, especially when his dream came true to meet NASCAR race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In the past, the Palmerton teen's parents, Pete and Melissa Olimpaito, would not likely have taken Brandon to races because of his diagnosis with autism. But the special accommodations made by the speedway allowed Brandon to enjoy his first-ever autism-friendly NASCAR race.
Children with autism find it hard to tolerate the normal engine noises, crowds and bleachers, but the June 3 race at Dover speedway was different. This year, Dover and NASCAR set out to make the speedway a place where autistic children and their families could enjoy the racing experience. The race also helped raise awareness for the little understood disorder, which along with related disorders affects one million children.
The race was a fundraiser for "Autism Speaks," the nation's largest autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.
There were 200 children in attendance each paying $88 for each adult ticket and $20 for children. The number 88 was chosen because 1 in 88 children has autism.
The racing fraternity is the latest sports/entertainment venue to make public places more accommodating for autistic individuals like Brandon and his family. Major League ballparks, movie theaters and Broadway shows – once off limits to the children and their families – have also joined the ranks.
Brandon was thrilled to meet Earnhardt. For days before the race, he told his friends and family how he wanted to meet the race's flagmen, Richard Wise and Corey Richardson, and of course, "his guy" Dale Jr.
Brandon's experience became a reality after his mother wrote an email to Autism Speaks, explaining how her son was a huge fan of all sports, but especially loved NASCAR.
"When I heard that you were creating a special section of seats in your indoor grandstand, I couldn't believe it," Olimpaito stated in the letter.
She noted that when her son heard about going to the race, he initially didn't ask about the drivers, but wanted to meet the flagmen, including Wise. He hoped he would get to wave a flag, or help with the pit crew.
Wise, who was impressed by the mother's letter, set out to make Brandon feel like a celebrity.
Olimpaito says when Brandon watches a race on television, he sees things others might miss. His gleans the information and remembers it. That skill impressed Wise.
At the track, Wise invited Brandon to the flag stand, but Brandon's disorder prevented him from climbing the steps.
He was also introduced Brandon to Jimmie Johnson and race team owner Joe Gibbs before having the opportunity to meet Earnhardt and greet all of the other drivers as they were about to be introduced.
Earnhardt gave Brandon a signed checkered flag, and he received a hat and other gifts from Johnson and Gibbs.
Brandon, who has been a fan of NASCAR for five years was in NASCAR racing heaven.
"It was a long day, but so worth it," said his mom. "It was nice to be in the grandstands, enclosed in air conditioning, which also protected Brandon from the noise."
She said there was also a quiet room, where Brandon and the other children with autism could get away. The room, for children who couldn't handle the noise and activity of the overall NASCAR experience, had televisions, bean bag chairs, and toys.
"This is the first time I've ever asked for a favor for my son," she noted. "I would have understood if they couldn't have done it."