As the Ferris wheel slowed down, his smile grew wider.
Jacob Johnson gazed up at the ride, anxious for the gate to open so he could climb in.
Johnson, an 8-year-old who has autism, came to the Johnson County fair on Wednesday for quiet time on the midway, a one-hour event where children with special needs could enjoy some of the rides for free.
During the midway’s regular hours, the noises would be too loud and the crowds too large, making the experience too overwhelming for Johnson, said Corrissa Proctor, Johnson’s older sister. When Proctor heard that the Johnson County fair would host a quiet hour on the midway, she and her brother came from Brown County. They couldn’t miss out, Proctor said.
“Jacob is a thrill seeker, but he doesn’t do things like this because he doesn’t like loud noises,” Proctor said. “I was worried the crowd may be too big, but it’s not. This is really great.”
About 50 children and teenagers with special needs stood outside the Poor Jack Amusement offices Wednesday with a parent or guardian, waiting for the rides to open.
Last year, fair board president Larry Vandenberg was asked if the Johnson County fair offered quiet time on the midway, Vandenberg said. Vandenberg, other fair board members and Gary Bohlander, the co-owner of Poor Jack Amusement, met and decided to host the event for this year’s fair, Vandenberg said.
Not much discussion was needed, fair board member Angela Morris said. The group simply decided the Johnson County fair needed this, Morris said.
Poor Jack Amusements offers quiet time on the midway at other fairs. The event is operated by Poor Jack employees who volunteer their time, Bohlander said.
“It’s a good feeling to see the smiles on these kids’ faces,” Bohlander said. “These parents can’t bring their kids out here during regular hours, so we try to give them a chance to enjoy this on their own time.”
Certain rides were open during the event, such as the Ferris Wheel and bumper cars, Bohlander said.
Just across the midway from the Ferris Wheel, 8-year old Lauren Marshall went around and around on the carousel, smiling the entire time, looking for her mom each time she passed.
Marshall has cerebral palsy and uses a walker. Her mother, Lana, received an email from Lauren’s elementary school teacher letting her know about the event, Lana Marshall said.
An event such as the county fair is one that Lauren Marshall’s classmates and friends at school will be talking about, and now, thanks to quiet time on the midway, Marshall will be able to be included in that conversation, Lana Marshall said.
“We were very excited about this. We never get to do anything like this before today,” Lana Marshall said. “She’s getting to experience something like a child without disabilities. We are very happy.”
The fair board and Poor Jack Amusements are already discussing next year’s fair. Quiet time on the midway will be back, for sure, but the discussion now focuses on how many days they want to have the event during the week, Vandenberg said.
Sarah Marot would like to see quiet time become an annual event at the fair. Her 10-year-old son Aj is autistic, and a large crowd and loud noise is not only overwhelming for her child, but it can also be stressful for the parents, Marot said.
Aj likes to run off sometimes, and Sarah or other family members have to chase after him. In a large crowd, it becomes challenging to track down Aj and find him when he darts off, Marot said. And there’s also a comfort level to being around other parents who have children with disabilities or special needs, Marot said.
“The fair is quiet, it’s not overwhelming. And if he has an episode, or does something, I don’t have to explain to a bunch of people standing around who don’t understand,” Marot said. “It’s nice. We don’t have to deal with people judging.”