Iowa State Fair holds first-ever sensory-friendly morning with fewer lights, less noise

·6 min read

For 4-year-old Raymond Walker, who has a sensory processing disorder, even ordinary noises can be scary and overstimulating. He has headphones to handle loud sounds like golf carts, music and even the hand dryers in the bathroom — all common sounds that make events like the Iowa State Fair difficult for him.

But for one morning at the 2022 Iowa State Fair, Raymond's headphones were tucked away below his stroller and he enjoyed the fair like any other 4-year-old. The bright lights and loud music of the Iowa State Fair were dimmed on Wednesday during the fair's first-ever sensory-friendly morning.

"At the sensory-friendly morning, we will create an environment designed with children and adults with autism or sensory processing disorders in mind," an Iowa State Fair news release said. "Our goal for the morning is to enable families who have a member, whether child or adult, with special needs to visit, explore and enjoy the fair."

The thousands of things to do, see and eat at the fair, combined with the loud music and bright lights, can cause overstimulation for individuals with autism or a sensory processing disorder. Overstimulation occurs when there is too much external stimuli for the brain to process effectively.

The new sensory-friendly morning enabled Raymond's mother, Cassi Walker of Indianola, to take her son to the fair without the worry of overstimulation.

"We've been here for an hour and it's pretty nice," Walker said. "I think they (fair staff) are more aware of not just the loud noises, but also the not being able to make eye contact thing. We did the Little Hands on the Farm, and they were really good about not pushing him. They could see that he was physically scared and shaking, and they backed off and said, 'Let mom do it.' Just being aware that he's not quite the norm, I suppose...it was really cool."

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Cassi Walker of Indianola (left) explores the Iowa State Fair during sensory friendly morning Aug. 17 with her son, Raymond Walker, and friend Elizabeth Olsen of Des Moines.
Cassi Walker of Indianola (left) explores the Iowa State Fair during sensory friendly morning Aug. 17 with her son, Raymond Walker, and friend Elizabeth Olsen of Des Moines.

Walker watched as fair staff helped Raymond onto a tractor, his favorite activity. It was a milestone for the child, who had not been to the State Fair since his sensory issues had increased.

"They (the staff) were really helpful," Walker said. "It's about being able to include everyone, having that inclusivity. And other people being aware of it helps a lot. Sometimes you don't realize, especially if you don't have any physical disabilities, people might not realize that he does still have disabilities, even if you can't physically see it."

Aside from the sensory-friendly morning, Walker noticed and appreciated other measures the fair took to promote inclusivity this year.

"I was pretty impressed with this year," Walker said. "A shout out to the adult changing bathrooms as well. I saw that for the first time this year and we don't personally use that, but I know some families that do and I was really impressed to see that."

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The DNR Courtyard provided a calm backdrop for educational displays during sensory-friendly morning at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 17.
The DNR Courtyard provided a calm backdrop for educational displays during sensory-friendly morning at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 17.

Amy Alles of Waukee was able to take her son Michael Alles, 23, to the State Fair for the first time because of sensory-friendly morning. Michael was able to spend time in the Animal Learning Center, which would normally be too crowded and loud for him.

"He's enjoyed the quietness," Alles said. "It's been so far, so good, although it's getting a little busy now."

Special sensory programming with modifications took place in certain areas of the fairgrounds, including fair rides with lights and sounds toned down. A calming room, sponsored by pediatric healthcare provider ChildServe, was also open to anyone needing time to recharge or destress.

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Occupational therapists with ChildServe help entertain kids in the calming room at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 17.
Occupational therapists with ChildServe help entertain kids in the calming room at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 17.

Occupational therapy student Alex Jendersee of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area works for ChildServe and volunteered to help with the calming room and other sensory activities. She hopes to see more calming spaces next year, emphasizing the importance of inclusivity at events like the fair.

"A lot of the kids that are coming here for the sensory-friendly morning just get very overstimulated by so many people, so many sounds, things that are new," Jendersee said. "So we have a place that's very quiet, we have sensory activities there. There's occupational therapists like us who can help talk families through some activities that can help bring their kid back to feeling comfortable and feeling able to engage in things that are new. So that's been a huge piece of this sensory-friendly morning."

Having volunteers from ChildServe on hand was an important part of sensory-friendly morning because it allowed parents to have a helping hand nearby, according to Jendersee.

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A calming room located in the Robert G. Horner and Sheri Avis Horner Service Center provided a sensory-friendly spot away from the overstimulation of the fair.
A calming room located in the Robert G. Horner and Sheri Avis Horner Service Center provided a sensory-friendly spot away from the overstimulation of the fair.

"It's hugely important for the family so they can experience this Iowa staple, coming to the fair," Jendersee said. "If families are not able to participate because a kid can't handle it or even the parent's own sensory needs, that's something that they're missing out on. And even for the families or the siblings of kids who have more sensory needs, or have autism or any number of neurodiverse diagnoses, they can experience this as a family, because those kids' needs are being met, versus coming to a place where it's just going to end really poorly for everybody."

Paige Petek of Des Moines visited the calming room with her son, 6-year-old Keaton Petek, Wednesday morning. The sensory-friendly morning was ideal for Keaton, who has autism. "Just the fact that there's people here to help makes our life a lot easier," his mother said.

"Since there's a lot of noises and people, it's important for these individuals to step away, regroup, kind of take some time and and get their needs fulfilled, and then we can go back out and do whatever," Petek said. "It helps us as a family for sure. Because (otherwise) he gets overwhelmed and then we have to leave early."

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Paige Petek of Des Moines holds her son Keaton Petek, 6, in the calming room at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 17.
Paige Petek of Des Moines holds her son Keaton Petek, 6, in the calming room at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 17.

Sensory-friendly morning at the fair not only provides a sensory relief to those who need it, it also raises awareness of neurodivergency and overstimulation that may not always be part of regular conversations, according to Jendersee.

"It's just the visibility component of like, we have people in Iowa that have different sorts of needs, and they should have access to it (the fair)," Jendersee said. "And people can see that they can still participate fully in different things if they have certain adaptations, their needs met, if we arrange the environment to meet them where they're at. It's just recognizing and celebrating the validity of these people who have different needs where sometimes that participation is very difficult."

Grace Altenhofen is a news reporter for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at galtenhofen@registermedia.com or on Twitter @gracealtenhofen.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa State Fair 2022 holds sensory-friendly morning with less noise