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Iowa State Fair hosts 1st sensory-friendly morning

The typical sights and sounds of the fair are toned down Wednesday morning to make the event accessible to those living with autism and sensory-processing disorders.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Local 5 and CW Iowa 23 are bringing exciting 2022 Iowa State Fair experiences to you, from live newscasts to an interactive Local 5 Weather Lab experience. Come see us in front of the Administration Building (Grand Concourse) each day between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m.

While many Iowans are likely accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells of the Iowa State Fair, some are hoping to create a new tradition at the annual event: a sensory-friendly morning

Designed for those living with autism or sensory-processing disorders, sensory-friendly programming is Wednesday, Aug. 17 between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m.

The goal of the morning is to provide a toned-down version of the event Iowans know and love. 

"This is one particular audience that we're super excited to invite into the fair," said Mindy Williamson, marketing director for the fair. "Maybe the sights, sounds, smells at the fair have been too much for some folks, so this sensory-friendly morning, we're calming it down."

To do so, the fair made a few notable adjustments, including lowering the lights and sounds of the Thrill Parks, and opening buildings and activities such as the Animal Learning Center and Little Hands on the Farm early to avoid crowds.

Other additions included a "Calming Room" located inside the Service Center for people to visit when feeling overwhelmed, a PlayDoh station and an interactive event with creatures from Blank Park Zoo. 

The planning portion of the sensory-friendly morning was no small feat. In fact, Williamson said it's been in the works for months.

For inspiration, Iowa State Fair organizers observed similar sensory-friendly mornings at fairs in Texas, Ohio and South Carolina. The fair collaborated with ChildServe and the Drake University occupational therapy program to better serve visitors. 

"As an occupational therapist and as the director of an occupational therapy program where we're training future occupational therapists, we thought it was really important to be a part of that whole process, to collaborate with the state fair folks to help them do the best job that they can do, to make this a really wonderful and welcoming experience for the families," said Leslie Jackson, program director of the occupational therapy program at Drake.

While the sensory-friendly morning is designed for those with specific needs, anyone can enjoy a few quiet hours at the fairgrounds. 

"Those of us who have been here every day will also be zen today," Williamson said with a laugh. 

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