Ohio State Fair officials to turn down lights, music for 1st of its kind ‘sensory-friendly’ event

Children and adult fair goers enjoy blue skies and a midway ride at the annual Iowa State Fair.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Visiting the state fair is a treat for most families and children, but the lights and noises can be overwhelming.

The Ohio State Fair in Columbus is staging a “sensory-friendly” event on July 31, turning down the lights and making for a quieter experience. It’s the first event of its kind at the fair, according to a representative.

“We’re making multiple efforts to make sure that the fair is inclusive and welcoming to all of our audience,” Ohio State Fair spokeswoman Alicia Shoults said. “The fair can be a little overwhelming for some. If we’re able to make some adjustments to turn down the lights and sounds and make the fair a little friendlier for those with sensory-processing disorders, that’s an easy step for us to take to make a difference in the community.”

Sensory issues can affect some people with autism-spectrum disorders. Bright lights and certain sounds, smells and tastes can be uncomfortable, and so can being touched.

The fair partnered with the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence, an organization that serves families and those who work with children and adults with autism-spectrum disorders and low-incidence disabilities, which include hearing and visual impairments.

People who attend the fair on the sensory-friendly morning, July 31, can ride the rides without flashing lights or music, and can visit a quiet room if they need a break from it all.

A sensory quiet room will be staffed with “people who understand autism and other developmental disabilities,” said Shawn Henry, executive director of the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence.

“Maybe it’s too overwhelming at some point” at the fair, Henry said. “There are fidgets and different activities. It’s quiet, and it’s cool. It should be an area for them to allow their sensory system to calm.”

The organization is also providing sensory kits that include physical objects to help people cope with tactile, visual, and auditory problems.

Fairgoers will have access to first-then boards, which give them a visual way of going from something they aren’t so interested in doing, to something they really want to do. It’s a visual system, with photos, words, or icons, that can serve as a schedule when they’re at the fair.

Waiting in lines can be a daunting, abstract thing for some people on the autism spectrum. Families can print out wait cards for children to hold while they’re in line for a ride.

Families can also look at provided social narratives that explain what goes on at the fair, with lots of photos, for children to understand.

“We’re trying to help families be prepared prior to walking into that door,” Henry said. “It’s a two-way street to build capacity at the fair, but also help the family prior to leaving their home.”

For people with physical disabilities or other impairments, there will be more charging stations for wheelchairs, Henry said. Those who are visually impaired can use glasses with a camera connected to an earpiece, through which a person relays information about their surroundings. This allows the person to explore the fair independently.

A few other state fairs have made similar efforts to accommodate guests. The New Mexico State Fair is offering a sensory station for its entire run this year. And last year, the Texas State Fair offered sensory-friendly mornings once a week.

Henry said other fairs and community events have contacted the center for help with their own work.

“I think the future holds a lot of promise around the hospitality industry being able to open its doors when you have good examples like this at the fair,” he said. “I think it will be the most accessible fair in the nation.”

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