'I wanted the whole world for him' – what drove one auntie to set up Ireland's autism friendly activity guide

I wanted the whole world for him, but in the weeks and months after my nephew’s autism diagnosis, Dillon’s life seemed squashed into a smaller and smaller space.

While other three-year-olds bounded around soft play areas, splashed around in swimming pools and babbled to each other, taking our noise-sensitive little man to the local Costa seemed like a daunting expedition.

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The things that all my friends’ children so easily enjoyed as they grew older – birthday parties, activity clubs, summer camps, cinema trips – seemed impossibly out of reach for a three-year-old who’d yet to utter his first word and was easily overwhelmed by new environments.

But I still wanted the whole world for him, so I hit up Google. I knew there were hundreds, if not thousands, of other Dillons out there, so it stood to reason that there must be something, somewhere, for them.

I’ve been at it for four years now, and this summer while on sabbatical I decided to rope in my web developer brother Mark Noonan to compile everything I’d discovered and some other research into a website called autismactivities.ie so that other families with an autism diagnosis (and without a journalist/professional Googler to hand) will be able to more easily discover places throughout the island of Ireland where their child can be included and accommodated, loved even.

One of the most important finds for our family has been Kidzcraft, a social group for children with autism in Kill, Co Kildare. We first discovered Kidzcraft through its summer camp, which ran that year for a few hours each morning in August. The children do arts and crafts, play games, enjoy sensory time and blossom under the love and care of Zarah Doyle and her team.

It’s a drop-off service, so parents get time to shop, have a coffee, go for a run, spend some time with another child, or do any of the other things that can be hard to do with a special needs child in tow. It also has a term-time version that runs most Saturdays during the school year.

Kidzcraft is special but, through the powers of Googling, I’ve found other summer camps and groups, which are listed on autismactivities.ie. Wexford GAA club runs a version of the Cul Gaelic Skills Camp for children with autism and their siblings.

In west Dublin, Sensory Fun with Friends offers a wide variety of activities including therapeutic horse riding, swimming and yoga for children with autism and other special needs. Snowflakes, in North County Dublin, runs messy play and other activities for children with autism. On Dublin’s southside, Open Spectrum offers everything from golf lessons to athletics, wall climbing, yoga and karate.

Like lots of services, the greater Dublin area seems to be the hotbed, but there are plenty of groups across the country that offer activities and parental support in their area, including Waterford Autism Social Support Action, MWB Autism Support in Longford, and Kerry Autism Action.

Our favourite recent discovery is Adams Camp, a residential summer therapy camp in Enniskillen where we spent a week in August. Three years ago I’d never have believed that we’d find a place where Dillon could share a hostel room with me, eat his meals in a common room and bounce down to his group every day grinning from ear-to-ear. He learned new skills like rock-climbing and prompts on his iPad communication app, but what I remember most is that for one week, the world seemed tailor-made just for Dillon.

Through the powers of Google, we’ve also discovered the most amazing surfing, both through Liquid Therapy, a free autism-specific programme in Donegal, and Tramore’s Freedom Surf School, which has fantastic autism-trained surf instructors.

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There are also sensory screenings at Odeon and other cinemas right across the country, where the lights are dimmed, the music is toned down, children can roam the aisles more freely, and cries, yelps and squeaks of all descriptions are perfectly normal. Jumpzone’s Dublin trampoline parks run special autism sessions of their own and for local autism support groups.

Travelling further afield has opened right up too – Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport both boast sensory rooms, respite zones with soothing lights and music. Gatwick Airport has one too, and so does Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson. Shannon and Dublin airports also have special flier badges to get children with autism through lines quickly, and social stories (picture books) to prepare them for the journey.

Northern Ireland has been a revelation. Through the families at Adams Camp we’ve discovered so many gems, including the High Rise Clip and Climb Adventure Centre in Libburn, designed to be inclusive and accessible for families with additional needs. Belfast’s Titanic centres offers accommodations, including VIP wristbands to speed up queuing, ear defenders on loan to help with noise, and a visual guide.

The Clarion Hotel in Sligo town has a sensory room downstairs, accessible only by key code for children with special needs. The Radisson Hotel in Sligo recently became Ireland’s first hotel to boast a sensory bedroom, by putting lights and other sensory toys in a room. Ireland’s first autism-friendly town, Clonakilty, has several hotels and B&Bs that offer social stories, boxes with smaller sensory toys, and invite suggestions on other things they can do to accommodate guests with autism.

Tayto Park offers discounted entry and a queue-skipping programme, and ran its first autism-friendly day earlier this year with reduced noise and other accommodations. Dublin Zoo offers discounted pricing too. My hometown Clonmel, in Co Tipperary, recently opened a sensory playground, equipped with a sunken trampoline, special-needs swings and other sensory experiences that are safe and accessible to all.

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Several other towns have recently been given autism-friendly designation by national autism charity AsIAm, including Clane, Tralee and Bray. The designation means a critical mass of businesses across the town have undertaken initiatives like training staff around autism, creating quiet spots where appropriate and developing social stories to help prepare people with autism for their visits.

SuperValu, which sponsors the autism-friendly towns programme, runs autism-friendly shopping hours at various times across their stores nationwide. Big shopping centres like Liffey Valley have occasional autism-friendly sessions of their own.

By building autismactivities.ie, we hope to put all the above and more at the fingertips of families who’ve recently gotten an autism diagnosis, at what can be a particularly isolating part of their journey. We hope it can be a tool for families planning trips in Ireland, so they can see where their kids can be best catered for. We hope both groups will increase demand for services and activities, which will help ensure that what’s already there is sustained, and even more is done in the future. Because every child, and every adult, deserves their shot at the whole world.

Laura Noonan is US Banking Editor at the Financial Times, and a former Irish Independent journalist. If you’d like to add an activity/venue/group to autismactivities.ie or would like to subscribe for updates on the project, please email [email protected]

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