Otsego County fair eases sensory overload for a day

Sarah Eames | The Daily StarNoah Andreic, 6, of Oneonta, rides the carousel with his mother, Sheila, at the Otsego County Fair in Morris last week.

MORRIS — Aside from the hum of generators, whining gears and the occasional hiss of a helium tank, the Otsego County Fairgrounds were quiet Wednesday afternoon, July 31.

The midway was free of pounding sledgehammers and clanging bells, shots from toy pistols and shrill prize-winning buzzers. The carousel horses ran their race in silence; the Ferris wheel turned without a sound.

The vintage rides — the Scrambler, the Cliffhanger, the tilt-a-whirl — creaked more prominently in the absence of the nostalgic horn, xylophone and calliope symphony elemental to most any carnival.

Mid-afternoon attendance was sparse, but many of the fair’s patrons preferred it that way.

It was “Think Differently Day,” an afternoon set aside to accommodate local residents with sensory sensitivities.

The event was inspired by a similar setup at a fair near Buffalo, according to organizers.

“We’re expecting every fair in town to catch on by next year,” said fair manager Lisa Jones.

For two hours, every ride on the midway turned off its lights and unplugged its speakers. Those in attendance had their pick of the attractions, some taking a spin all to themselves.

Sheila Andreic, an Oneonta mother of three, said she was thrilled when she heard about the event.

“This is our third attempt at the fair, and it’s been so much better for us,” she said. “Usually I’m caught between two kids who love rides and one running in the other direction, and now he wants to ride all the rides.”

Andreic’s six-year-old son, Noah, has autism spectrum disorder.

People with the disorder may be sensitive to bright lights or find certain sounds overwhelming, and some become anxious in crowded or public spaces, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

“For them to have an opportunity like this — together — is priceless to me,” she said, watching as Noah and his four-year-old sister, Nadia, chose to share a car on a ride. “And I don’t feel as stressed-out coming to things like this.”

In 2017, Andreic founded Noah’s World, an Oneonta play center with accommodations for children with special needs, in honor of her son.

“These opportunities are popping up everywhere, and although they’re not as big as some might want, it’s definitely a start,” she said.

Oneonta resident Regina Hubbard said she felt more comfortable bringing her family to the fair without all the lights and sounds.

Hubbard said all three of her kids have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and her 10-year-old son, Jack, also has autism spectrum disorder.

“This is just so much nicer for everyone,” she said.

Jeff Meyers, a soon-to-be resident of Pathfinder Village in Edmeston, greeted fair-goers who stopped by the “calm-down tent,” another special feature of Think Differently Day.

Visitors could make their own stress balls by filling latex balloons with uncooked beans or rice, squeeze bags of slime or play with punch balloons, but Meyers said he preferred to cut shapes out of play dough.

“It keeps me out of trouble,” he said. “It’s a nice break. I like it.”

Jennifer Brose, a community outreach specialist with Pathfinder, said she was impressed with the fair’s initiative.

“In a rural county like this, this is a huge step,” she said.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.