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Illinois state fair creates sensory station and sunflower hours

Oct 16, 2023

People with sensory processing disorders will experience a new Illinois State Fair this year thanks to two initiatives designed to increase accessibility.

The fair will provide a sensory-friendly station and host sunflower hours with programming that offers reduced lighting and sound from 9 a.m. to noon on Aug. 12.

"This year, we are taking steps to help those who feel overwhelmed by giving them a place to get support and make their fair a positive experience," said Rebecca Clark, state fair manager. "The fair is a celebration of our state so I think if we can be accommodating to all, that's what we should strive to be."

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A variety of entertainment options without the use of loud sound systems will be available during sunflower hours to provide a more calming environment to families with special needs.

A silent dance party, hosted by 99.7 The Mix, will also take place from 10 a.m. to noon in the Reisch Pavilion to allow fairgoers to dance at their own pace and preferred volume.

According to the National Library of Medicine, an estimated 5% to 16.5% of the general population experience symptoms associated with sensory processing challenges. The number is higher for people with autism and other sensitivities, and the challenges result in sensory overload which can impact the ability to comfortably participate in crowded social gatherings.

“We attended a lot of continuing education seminars in the winter and we heard from a few other fairs who started doing the same initiative and its impact," Clark said. "I sat in these seminars crying after hearing about their experiences so we looked at our fairgrounds to see how we could make those improvements too. "

Many of the rides in the Carnival Midway and Adventure Village will also operate without the bright lights and loud sounds during sunflower hours. Fair staff will distribute stickers to those with sensory processing challenges during sunflower hours to serve as visual cues for possible need of additional assistance.

A sensory station with weighted blankets, noise canceling headphones, calming pods and quiet activities will be available in the Emmerson Building, located off of Main Street and Brian Raney Avenue. The station will be open all 11 days of the fair and will be a dedicated quiet zone to aid individuals and families who need a moment to regroup.

Stickers for those with sensory processing challenges can also be picked up inside the Emmerson building and are only required for use of the carnival rides. A limited number of sensory bags, provided by Hope School, that include fidget tools, headphones, and sunglasses will also be available to check out for use on the fairgrounds.

"At Hope, our mission is to cultivate change to create the most inclusive environments," said Amanda Brott, Hope's Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer. "Having an opportunity to provide support to fair-goers is a way for Hope to ensure that everyone, including those with developmental or intellectual differences, are able to access and enjoy this year's event.”

Clark said depending on feedback, the goal is to keep the sensory station as a permanent element of the fair.

“We hope to get some good, bad, and ugly feedback on all the things we introduce to the fair because without those stories we can’t make the proper improvements," she said. "I'm hopeful we'll take the sensory station into year one and improve it in year two."

The Illinois State Fair kicks off Thursday, Aug 10. To learn more about the Illinois State Fair's Sensory Friendly Fair initiative, visit