NJ State Fair offers sensory day for children with autism

FRANKFORD — The New Jersey State Fair carnival area normally flashes with bright lights and blares with upbeat music. For two hours on Thursday, it was strangely subdued.

The rides were still clattering. But throughout the morning, another noise became more frequent: the delighted howls of the runners, taking advantage of an environment usually uncomfortable for some, unbearable for others.

The hushed morning was the highlight of the fair’s first-ever ‘sensory-friendly’ event, organized to accommodate people with autism and other conditions that make them sensitive to light or sound.

State Fair/Sussex County Farm and Horse Show officials coordinated with Reithoffer Shows, the organization overseeing the carnival, to run 18 rides without lights or music from 10 a.m. to noon Thursday. During this special session – the carnival opens at noon on both days of the fair – there were also no announcements over the fairground loudspeakers, to further ease visitors’ anxiety. .

The fair seemed more exciting than ever for the kids who jumped on the rides that morning. They exited the rides happily, having stayed several times due to the smaller crowd. Several gave their parents a thumbs up, one boy smiled from ear to ear. “That was awesome!” He shouted.

Fair president Joan Smith, a retired special education teacher, said she got the idea for the monthly magazine from the International Association of Fairs and Exhibitions. She recalled how her students were often distressed by fire drills and other noisy events, so she wanted to create an atmosphere where they could avoid these stressful situations.

“We want them all to have a good time, and we don’t like the idea that people have been kicked out of fairground rides just because it upset them,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re looking for here: to make people happy.

The state fair had a willing partner in Florida-based Reithoffer Shows, which has held similar sensory days at other festivals around the country and so knows how to be extra careful when helping runners.

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“You need to make your operators pay more attention to customers and make sure they’re managing the ride they’re on,” said owner Rick Reithoffer. “We also go around and take a look at all the rides and try to figure out what we think is too much for the clientele that we have, and we just don’t open those rides while the event is going on. unfolds.”

Many people with sensory processing issues are embarrassed by anything unfamiliar to their skin, Reithoffer pointed out, so employees have learned to be creative when handing out the necessary wristbands for admission.

“I put it on a belt loop, I put it on a shoe, I did all kinds of things,” he said. “In our world, we learn to adapt and overcome.”

Matthew Shepsis, 9, of Parsippany, enjoys one of the rides at the New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm and Horse Show.  Matthew, who has autism, enjoyed the lights and music off for two hours on Thursday morning, helping people with sensory processing difficulties have a more enjoyable experience.  In Augusta, NJ, on August 11, 2022.

The morning was a hit with runners like 3-year-old Athena Nembrotti of Budd Lake, who was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder during a recent exam. Athena can be overstimulated by crowds and noises, said her mother, Robyn Nembrotti, but she loves “running and crashing into things, jumping things.”

Athena happily strolled through the carnival area on Thursday in pink shorts and shorts. She wore purple headphones and large sunglasses to help minimize sensory overload. Accompanied by her father, Michael, she raced the mini NASCAR Speedway tracks three times before heading to the Magic Bus for more entertainment.

The lack of lights and music made the rides more enjoyable, her mother said.

“It’s hard to compare because she hasn’t been on rides where everything is happening, but I couldn’t imagine her being so excited to be here if there was constant ringing of all the bells and of all the whistles,” Nembrotti said. “She could be a little more stressed. Her limit would probably be shorter.”

Debbie Coltenback felt the same way watching 11-year-old Seth Gogolen, a family friend she accompanied to the fair. Seth ran on the Super Himalayan track. Like Athena, he likes to ride fast but wore headphones to block out any distracting noise.

“I think it’s great,” Coltenback, who is also Seth’s assistant in the Hardyston Township School District, said of the sensory environment. “I like that it’s not so crowded so they don’t have to wait in line because they have queuing issues.”

Michael and Robyn Nembrotti, of Budd Lake, with their daughter Athena, 3, on one of the rides at the New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm and Horse Show.  Carnival operators dimmed the lights and music on the rides for two hours on Thursday morning to allow people with sensory processing difficulties a more enjoyable experience.  In Augusta, NJ, on August 11, 2022.

Fans on Facebook praised the event for its inclusiveness, and Smith said she would research and wait for feedback to see what needs to be added or changed next time. She hopes to spread the word earlier next year to local schools and Sussex County organizations such as SCARC, which serves people with developmental disabilities and their families.

If Athene Nembrotti and her mother were any indication, the sensory-sure event is likely to become a State Fair tradition.

“She’s having a blast and I’m happy,” said Robyn Nembrotti. “It’s good that they did that, and I think they should do it every year.”

The final day of the 2022 New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm and Horse Show is scheduled for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information visit www.sussexcountyfairgrounds.org.

Kyle Morel is a local reporter covering Morris and Sussex counties.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @KMorelNJH

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