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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Toned-down day at the Spokane County fair has appeal

Larry Hawl guides Amiah Rowe's hand as she pets his favorite cow, Hawkeye, during Sensory Day at the Spokane Interstate Fair on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Rides whooshed by, but their lights weren’t flashing and their music and sound effects were turned off.

Animals arrived at the barns, but there were fewer milling around than most days and their handlers made a special effort to keep them calm.

It was notably quiet at the Spokane County Interstate Fair on Tuesday, and that wasn’t an accident. It was the fair’s first sensory day: a day devoted to turning down the overwhelming-to-everyone experience and catering to individuals who sometimes struggle to process the world around them when they are either over- or understimulated.

These struggles can come with many diagnoses but are common in those with autism and developmental delays, said Holly Lytle, founder of the Isaac Foundation, which works to enhance the lives of those with autism.

“It’s not a bad thing that you need to explore your environment differently,” Lytle said. “A fair is a lot to handle for anyone.”

As his stroller was pushed into the cow barn Liam O’Neel-Cox, 4, giggled and laughed as he pointed at a sleepy cow.

Krista O’Neel and Lee Cox brought Liam to the fair Tuesday because rides are often too much for Liam to handle.

“He’s normally terrified of rides,” O’Neel said.

Every time the couple had tried before to enjoy rides with Liam, it was too overwhelming and he got upset. But on Tuesday, the quiet environment helped make the fair an enjoyable experience.

“As soon as we heard no sounds and the lights are off, we thought maybe we could try and get him on a ride,” O’Neel said. “He actually seems to be enjoying it this year, since it’s a lot more toned down.”

Liam has developmental delays and is being tested for autism this week.

“It seems like they’re trying harder this year to accept people with special needs,” O’Neel said of the fair.

Fair organizers consulted with local nonprofits to make the sensory day accessible to the entire community.

The day was about “being mindful, aware, accepting and welcoming of how different people take in the fair,” said Mary Kae Repp, fair organizer.

The Isaac Foundation worked with The Arc of Spokane, the fair and Sleep Dentistry of Spokane to coordinate and provide information for the event.

The Arc of Spokane is the local chapter of a national organization that advocates for people with developmental disabilities.

A map was available with featured events and information.

“We’ve got people out here with maps making sure they can get to somewhere they feel safe,” Repp said.

One of the volunteers was Lark Mack with Skils’kin, a nonprofit that provides employment for adults with disabilities.

Mack was stationed outside the quiet rooms, which provided an area for people to decompress.

“They should be able to enjoy the fair just like everyone else,” Mack said. “We need events like this for those on the spectrum.”

Fair organizers also discussed awareness and best practices with the superintendents who run sections of the fair.

Preparation and awareness were a key part of sensory day, said Lytle.

“A lot of it is just being able to give them information so that they can plan their fair experience the way they need to,” Lytle said.

The day drew large groups of disabled individuals as well as older fairgoers.

“It’s the no-judgment zone, so if you do have a problem here nobody even thinks anything of it,” Lytle said.

Darci Ladwig from The Arc agreed, noting that a lot of families that include kids with special needs feel isolated, since changes to routines can lead to “a meltdown.” .

“Everybody is kind of making adjustments and that’s the benefit of today,” Lytle said. “It’s the no judgment.”