The smells of fried food, the sounds bouncing through the Midway, the occasional band playing, the flashing lights, and even the excited screams of people on rides are some of the best things about going to the State Fair of Texas—unless, that is, you have sensory sensitivities that make all of it overwhelming.
I speak from experience. Not long after our son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, we tried a weekend trip to the State Fair. Prior visits had been during the week, and often earlier in the day, when it was quieter, and the crowds were lighter. Anyone who has been attending the fair for long can tell you one thing: Thursday mornings at Fair Park sound and look a lot different from Fridays or Saturday nights. And that difference meant that we lasted about half an hour before we ended up hustling back to our car with an overwhelmed child.
And it’s not just children that can find the stimuli overwhelming—those with post-traumatic stress disorder or who are recovering from strokes or another neurological issue can also have difficulty navigating the sights and sounds of the State Fair at full bore.
Which is why in 2018 State Fair of Texas public relations manager Taylor Austin realized that for the fair to be accessible and fun for everyone, it needed to look at helping out families who needed to factor in sensory sensitivities.
“It was a project that I actually spearheaded for our team—just finding ways to make the fair more accessible, knowing that we’re a place where we welcome people from all walks of life,” she said. “Knowing that not everyone can come out and enjoy a super over-the-top, overstimulating environment, we thought, ‘what changes can we do internally to make this a better experience for folks that do have sensory sensitivities?’”
The team did its homework, starting by consulting with local organizations and the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, or IBCCES, which is responsible for credentialing professionals that work with people on the autism spectrum.
What emerged from that is a series of sensory-friendly mornings that provide a quieter, less frantic version of the State Fair, with a map of “Quiet Zones” that can be taken advantage of any time a family needs a break from the excitement. It also delivers an itinerary created specifically for those mornings, which happen every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Midway is open from noon to 1 p.m. without the usual lights and sounds so that families can also enjoy the games.
And should a family still need to leave early, Wednesdays are also one of the cheaper days to go—each person who brings five canned food items to donate to the North Texas Food Bank will receive $5 admission.
Austin said the team that works that morning is prepared for what to expect. “As we look to each Wednesday morning, we remind everyone on the grounds that sensory-friendly morning is happening, including our security personnel,” she said. “For the most part, our team is aware and very cooperative as far as any needs that our families have.”
The organization continues to try to improve the experience on those sensory-friendly days each year, too. “We continue to receive feedback and ideas, which is so helpful because we’re still learning too on how we can provide the best experience for folks, no matter what their sensitivities may be.”
Austin said that the fair’s push to be more accessible to families and individuals with sensory sensitivities has also made them a resource for other fairs, who started reaching out after the State Fair debuted their sensory-friendly mornings in 2018.
“From there it was really cool to see that fairs from across the country reached out to us once they saw that we were doing this, because they wanted to implement it at their fairs,” Austin said. “We were very excited to not only implement it at our fair, but to be a part of making change at fairs across the country.”