'Quieter' auto show a nod to autism alliance partnership

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) wrapped up a 16-day peek behind the curtain of the latest mobility innovations, including industry-shaping announcements and global reveals, all while welcoming hundreds of thousands of people from around the world to experience what the new product and technology buzz was all about.

Robert Lawson hadn't been at the Detroit auto show long before the feeling set in that something was different. 

"I notice it's much quieter," the Detroiter said Sunday, as the clock ticked toward the show's last day. "It seems more subdued."

A "quieter" show was underway as part of a partnership with Autism Alliance of Michigan, which was designed to provide a sensory-friendly option to those on the autism spectrum, show organizers said.

Sunday also was the final day for the January auto show in Detroit, and the gears were winding down on a part of auto show history.

The Detroit auto show wrapped up its 16-day run Sunday with more than 100,000 attendees, pushing overall ticketed attendance to 774,179. That's down nearly 35,000 visitors from last year. 

With a winter storm bearing down on Metro Detroit, the switch to the North American International Auto Show in June next year seemed apt. 

People walk through the Nissan display during the final day of the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center, in Detroit on Jan. 27, 2019.

But before the show was disassembled, visitors walked the floors, spotting shiny, new vehicles to dream about and presentations.

For the second year, the auto show offered the sensory-friendly option. From 8 a.m. to noon Sunday, no music played aloud, there were no loud presentations and no pulsating lights.

Lawson was heartened to learn that the Sunday show was designed with a purpose. The quieter show wasn't his preference and his son, Christian, 8, said he'd prefer a show that was a bit more lively than what they saw on arriving and a bit less flashy than what would come in the hours after noon, when the lights started pulsating again and the volume rose.

Tammy Morris, chief program officer of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, said the non-profit works statewide to help businesses and events accommodate the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Michiganians on the autism spectrum.

Sometimes this takes the form of training for employees. And sometimes it looks like Sunday's auto show, helping a major public event become inclusive to those who might be kept away by bright lights and loud sounds.

Morris said that while "there are certainly some folks on the autism spectrum who love brights lights, flashing lights, special effects, loud noises, and actively seek them out," some people at different points on the spectrum are "more defensive" and can't process high-level sensory input.

Two-year-old Real Atchley, of Roseville gets a visit with a dog named Chance, with help from Michigan Humane Society volunteer Martina Maher at the Subaru display.

Amanda Niswonger, spokeswoman for the auto show, said the four-hour block of sensory-friendly time was carved into the final show days the last two years because organizers "wanted to reach new audiences, who wouldn’t typically be able to enjoy our show."

Lana Satawa said the last time she'd been to the auto show, before Sunday, was when she was in high school. That's when Cobo Center was still Cobo Hall, before it received the transformation its owners said was necessary to keep the facility viable. 

"Last time (I attended the show), you couldn’t even walk. It was compacted in," Satawa said before the noon switch to a louder, brighter auto show.

"This is much more spread out and airy. It’s more light, trendy. I thought it would be a little more aggressive in here. It’s not."

Satawa said the relaxing vibe organizers sought to accommodate those on the autism spectrum had been achieved. 

"Last time, I don’t know that I enjoyed it. It was very tight," she said.

Her boys, Cameron, 7, and Bryce, 5, sat up front in a black Dodge Ram 1500 Laramie as their mother spoke. It was the boys' love for cars, she said, that inspired Sunday's hour-long trek downtown. Neither she nor her husband had been to the show in at least 15 years.

"I’m relaxed, actually, and I never thought I would equate that to the auto show," Satawa said.

Brian Kunkel, 31, of Ann Arbor, said he attends the auto show every year and this time, it felt smaller: Not as many automakers and not as many electric vehicles as he would have liked. 

His wife, Amy Lagina, 38, noticed something else, too. 

"It's quiet," she said, a nod to the quieter auto show that had yet to ramp up after noon.