Detroit auto show hosts first event for those with sensory sensitivity and autism

, Detroit Free Press

First ever Sensory Friendly Day takes place at NAIAS; gives chance to many to visit event for the first time

If you were at the North American International Auto Show on Sunday morning, you may have noticed there was no loud music, no flashing lights and the monitors usually displaying fast-moving video were static.

For many, the booming bass and strobe lights are enjoyable features of the show. But, for those with sensory sensitivity, it can hinder their ability to attend events such as the Detroit auto show.

That is why the NAIAS – in collaboration with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Autism Alliance of Michigan – organized the first ever Sensory Friendly Day at the show.

In addition to flashing lights and loud noises, long lines and crowds of people can also be overwhelming for those with sensory sensitivity and autism, which is why doors were opened at 8 a.m., an hour early on the final day of the event.

“We are always looking for new ways to reach out to the community,” said Rod Alberts, executive director of the NAIAS. “Sensory day creates an opportunity for those who usually cannot attend the show to come out, have fun and see the 750 cars we have on display.”

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“It isn’t one-size-fits-all when it comes to autism and sensory sensitivity,” said Colleen Allen, president and CEO of Autism Alliance of Michigan.

For Emily Johns of Livonia, who has autism, the swarming crowds of people can cause a great deal of anxiety and frustration, according to her mother, Jennifer Johns.

“This is the first time we are coming out to the auto show because we can finally do it as a family,” said Johns. “It would not be a pleasant experience if it weren’t for Sensory Friendly Day.”

Oliver Hanawalt of Birmingham, who also has autism, has trouble standing in lines for a long period of time.

“Being able to come in early and beat the lines is wonderful and relieves a lot of stress for us,” said Oliver’s father, Ted Hanawalt.

Calley, whose daughter has autism, said, “I love to encourage inclusion of the autistic community. Inclusion doesn’t happen on accident; it happens when there is intentional effort to make it happen.”

He added, “What the NAIAS is doing today is sending a clear and direct message that people with autism are welcome and that they are willing to make changes to include everybody.”

Contact reporter Omar Abdel-Baqui: 313-222-8850 or