This year for the first time in its 164-year history, the Minnesota State Fair is taking proactive steps to welcome visitors with sensory processing challenges like autism spectrum disorder.
On Monday, August 28, guests who visit the Mighty Midway and Midway will experience something unique. The area will literally turn down the volume and be without its usual loud music and signature bright lights.
From 9 to 11 am on the Midway and from 10 am to noon on the Mighty Midway, lights will dim or be turned off entirely and noisy sound effects and thumping tunes will be silenced. Barkers’ voices will not be amplified with microphones and all non-safety-related announcements will be kept to a minimum.
“The State Fair is called the Great Minnesota Get-Together and we’ve made a few adjustments to try our best to embody that and be more inclusive, to help people navigate their day so they can have a great experience,” said Christine Noonan, marketing director for the State Fair.
Many visitors love the State Fair specifically for its sensory overload, with the commotion of the crowds, the spectacle of live entertainment, the parades, the animals, and the scents of roasting corn, smoking pork, and deep-fried everything.
But the very atmosphere that attracts most Fair fans is too stimulating for people with sensory processing challenges and can trigger a meltdown. Many have been wary to venture to the Fairgrounds, but this year’s new accommodations may appeal to them.
“We’ve already heard from people who are excited about what we are doing and are planning to come on the morning of August 28,” Noonan said. “We hope people will take a chance and try it out and see if this will work for them and their families.”
The State Fair has also collaborated with Fraser, a Minnesota nonprofit that treats people with autism and mental health disorders, to provide visitors with an online pre-visit story. This narrative explains the experience of visiting the Fair to prepare children for what the experience will be like and to reduce the anxiety of the unfamiliar.
Visitors of all ages who live with sensory processing challenges can also plan to take a break at the Fraser Sensory Building, on the west side of Cosgrove Street south of the Home Improvement building.
Staffed by Fraser’s trained individuals and volunteers, the air-conditioned space offers a quiet respite where visitors who feel overwhelmed can self-regulate with techniques and tools including weighted blankets, floor cushions, and fidget toys.
The Fraser Sensory Building will be open from 9 am to 9 pm throughout the 12-day run of the State Fair. People of all ages with PTSD, seizure disorders, and other anxiety disorders are also welcome.
These accommodations by the State Fair represent another step in a growing national trend. Venues that want to be more welcoming to the neurodiverse have offered adapted spaces for fans who are on the spectrum. In recent years, professional sports teams, theater operators, museums, and other public places have created sensory rooms for those in search of a less stimulating environment.
“Our employees and the ride and game operators all on board, wholly supportive of this,” Noonan said. “When you think of rides and games, you naturally think of kids and families, but there are plenty of adults who also want to experience walking around the Fair in a calmer way.”