Four years ago, Anthony Ianni, former MSU basketball player and the first Division 1 basketball player to be identified as on the autism spectrum, proposed the idea of a ‘sensory room’ to Breslin Center Administration.
On Tuesday, The Spartan Family Sensory Room was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Ianni, Interim President Teresa Woodruff, basketball head coach Tom Izzo, along with other faculty and community members.
Ianni said five years ago the parent of a child at his yearly basketball clinic for kids with autism and disabilities told him they could not take their child to events at the Breslin Center due to a lack of accommodations for sensory needs. This was a key motivator for Ianni in pushing for a sensory room to be built at the Breslin Center.
Ianni said in 2019 he talked to multiple NBA organizations about how they implemented sensory rooms to their arenas, including the Golden State Warriors, where his former teammate and personal friend, Draymond Green, plays.
“The Warriors (said), ‘This project for us was not even 12 grand.’ I was like, ‘Are you serious?'” Ianni said. “(The Warriors) were saying, it’s all about finding the space.”
One day in the summer of 2019, Ianni walked the concourse at the Breslin Center looking for a space for the sensory room. However, Ianni said Breslin Center management at that time said there was no available space.
“Fast forward to December 2021, I had a conversation with Jeff Latinen, who (managed the Breslin Center at the time), and (he) pulled me aside after one of our basketball games that I was at and he said, ‘Hey, let’s talk. I think we’ve got a space,'” Ianni said.
Ianni said Latinen told him the old 50/50 raffle storage room would be a good fit.
Ianni was invited by The Golden State Warriors in April 2022 to come to San Francisco and do autism awareness events, including a basketball clinic for children with autism hosted by himself and Draymond Green. During this visit, Ianni had a chance to tour the Warriors’ arena. Ianni was impressed by the sensory room there, especially given that the room was previously a janitor’s closet which had been repurposed.
The equipment and furniture for the sensory room came from the Fredi The PizzaMan Foundation. The foundation, which was started by local business owner, Fredi Bello and his wife Romina Bello, strives to “spread autism awareness, autism acceptance and equip sensory rooms in all schools and community centers in the State of Michigan,” according to their website.
“For children with autism and special needs, (sensory rooms) are the world to them,” Fredi Bello said. “(Children with autism) need a space where they can go and decompress and just kind of center themselves, and a sensory room will do that.”
Fredi Bello, who has owned a successful pizza restaurant for 33 years, said he always wanted to give back in some way, but nothing ever touched his heart.
“I’m not the kind of person who’s gonna do something just to do something," Fredi Bello said. "It has to mean something to me.”
When his son was diagnosed with autism in 2017, Fredi Bello found that making his community more accepting of people with autism was the cause that meant something to him.
Fredi Bello emphasized that his foundation does not just “write checks.” Instead, he and his family go to the space, order the equipment, deliver it to the space and set it up. Fredi Bello and his family visited the Breslin Center on Father’s Day last June and spent 10 hours there setting up all the equipment.
The Fredi The PizzaMan Foundation has also equipped 72 schools across the state of Michigan with sensory rooms. The Breslin Center is the first sensory room that the foundation has equipped in a large venue. Next week, there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new sensory room at Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play.
Ianni said one of his favorite features of the Breslin Center’s sensory room is the green bubble wall. He “fell in love with The Warriors' blue and gold bubble wall” and immediately told the Breslin Center that there must be a Spartan-themed bubble wall in the Breslin Center’s sensory room.
Breslin Center Operations and Event Manager Ryan Curtis said the implementation of the sensory room is a step forward in carrying out MSU’s 2030 Strategic Plan.
“Two of the multiple goals of the plan are to enhance the quality of life for people everywhere and improve health and systems that affect health, and also to become a national leader in increasing diversity, promoting inclusion, ensuring equity and eliminating disparities on our campus and beyond," Curtis said.
"Obviously, MSU is taking the right step," Ianni said in regard to raising awareness for autism and sensory needs on campus.
Ianni said he would like to see more sensory rooms and more sporting events dedicated to autism awareness. According to Ianni, there have been talks of putting sensory rooms in Spartan Stadium and in the new Student Recreation and Wellness Center, which is set to open in spring of 2026.
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