New sensory hotel bedrooms aim to offer "a non-stressful stay" for families living with autism, reports Pól Ó Conghaile
"Sometimes, it's just easier not to go away with your children."
Emma Harris, whose seven-year-old son, Dylan, has autism, is talking travel.
She and her husband have taken their three kids on some big trips - New York, Disney World and Venice among them. Despite their energy and experience, however, travelling with autism still makes even simple staycations a challenge.
"I feel nervous just thinking about it... Say if you go to breakfast, will it be too noisy? What will the staff be like? If I say 'autism', will they look at me blankly? Like they don't know what to do? Will the room be safe? Will it have a window lock?"
Emma blogs on family travel at Me, The Man and The Kids. Her day job is Digital Media Assistant at Fitzgerald's Woodlands House Hotel in Adare, Co Limerick.
It's a good fit. The four-star has a gotten positive feedback from guests with children on the autism spectrum, and Emma is currently developing its first 'sensory boxes' - kits containing communication cards, picture aids, special toys, ear defenders and other items - for guests with additional needs.
"It's the unknown," she says. "It's not knowing where you're going."
So what Irish hotels are making life easier for families living with autism?
Last month, Sligo's Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa unveiled the first 'sensory hotel bedroom' in Ireland, a refurbished suite with features like mood lighting, aura projections, massage rollers and a mobile sensory trolley - all designed to offer children with autism, ADHD and other disabilities, "a non-stressful stay".
"This facility just isn't available in this country," says Seamus Preston, its General Manager. "It's fairly simple, but there's certainly a wow factor when you walk in, with all of the lighting and the sensory trolley and so on."
Designed by the Radisson's innovation team with Multisensory Ireland, a company specialising in sensory rooms and soft play spaces, the room also includes soft fabrics, ear defenders and fibrotic lights showing a starry night.
The idea was suggested by an employee at an innovation meeting, Preston says. They told the team about a friend whose child is on the autism spectrum, about the trouble that family had finding suitable rooms on holidays.
"We're very lucky to be located in a nice, quiet part of Sligo," he adds. "We identified the right room to provide that calming space."
And the price?
Overnight rates in the sensory room start from €158 over mid-term for two adults and a child sharing, or from €188 for two adults and two children.
There's more to come, too.
The Radisson Blu Sligo is a member of Ireland's iNua Collection, which the Irish Independent can reveal is spending over €80,000 in adapting several similar rooms throughout the country - at Radisson hotels in Athlone, Limerick and Cork, as well as the Kilkenny Hibernian, The Hillgrove in Monaghan and the Tullamore Court Hotel.
The rooms will be available to book by the end of February 2020, it says.
"We understand how hard it is for families with young children on the autism spectrum to travel," says Chris Austin, Group Operations Director. "We realised the demand was there, and [the idea] has been very well received."
Elsewhere, Sligo has also seen the Clayton and Yeats Country Hotel open sensory playrooms in recent years - complete with features like calming music, moving lights, aromatherapy diffusers, lava lamps and ball pools.
In Northern Ireland, Limavady's Roe Park Resort has teamed up with Assistance Dogs NI to open an "autism-friendly room", and trained staff to improve interactions with guests with autism and other additional needs.
"We amended certain features within the room itself," explains the hotel's Sales & Marketing Manager, Sinead McNicholl. These range from covering red lights on the TV to placing dimming filters in the bathroom, introducing an autism clock and making the room pet-friendly, with bedding and bowls for assistance dogs.
The Roe Park has also produced a 'social story', which families can use to familiarise themselves with the hotel and its layout before they arrive, and facilities for in-room dining "because restaurants can be noisy places".
B&B rates start from £52 for adults, and £20 for kids aged 3-12.
“My son Joe has autism and we find it difficult to go away together as a family," says Fiona Burns-Kirby, who tried out the new room with her family. "It’s been over two years since we’ve had a break away together, so we were both excited and nervous. I'm pleased to say it turned out to be a success."
In general terms, Irish hotels are "fairly accommodating" to people with autism, says Tara Matthews, Deputy Executive Director with the Irish Society for Autism.
"If you see a hotel that has a sensory room, or that has made changes to the environment specially for people with autism, then you know you're going to a place that's open and willing to help."
"It would even give the person themselves and their family that extra piece of confidence to go there and say, 'I do have autism, but I'm going to have a lovely holiday'."
In other developments, Shannon Airport was the first in Europe to open a sensory room (below), Dublin Airport plans to open a similar facility this month, and Cork Airport has a new lanyard scheme as part of its 'Hidden Disabilities' programme.
The news comes as research by AsIAm, the national autism charity, shows that 88pc of people with autism, or those who know people with autism, are more likely to visit communities that are officially "autism-friendly".
Last year, AsIAm ran a pilot campaign that saw Clonakilty, Co Cork, become Ireland's first "autism-friendly" town.
In partnership with SuperValu, it saw local businesses undertake training and awareness initiatives - the local Clonakilty Park Hotel, for instance, now offers a sensory map, social stories and sensory boxes for guests.
Now, the campaign is expanding to 11 further towns - Clane, Bray, Greystones, Wicklow Town, New Ross, Skerries and Lucan, Castlebar, Mallow, Listowel and Tralee.
For all the progress with sensory rooms, however, both Tara Matthews and and Emma Harris caution that they are just one step towards making holidays a more relaxing experience for families living with autism.
"No two kids with autism are the same," as Emma puts it.
"What works for one might not work fo another... it's about trying to find that middle ground, to help each kid, because every child needs and wants something different. It's all about catering to individual needs."
"The rooms may be more suitable to some people than others - to those that may have more sensory needs, for example," Matthews adds. "But in general this is a good story; it's a good idea for all public-facing businesses to start thinking about how they can accommodate more of the people going to stay with them."
"If people say how can we best accommodate you? Is there something you would love to see? Or is there something that would help you out? That's the extra piece we would all love to see."
What Irish hotels or guesthouses would you recommend for guests with autism or ASD, and why? Working on a piece, would love to mention the most deserving. 👍— @poloconghaile (@poloconghaile) October 2, 2019
1. "We have used Mulranny Park (@MulrannyPark) and Parknasilla (@parknasilla) to good effect because the Lodges /Apartments on site afford the win/win of maximum seclusion for our reclusive #ASD family member, while also giving easy access to hotel facilities esp. the pool. Pricey but priceless." - @GerardAnthonyB
2. "Woodlands House Hotel (@WoodlandsHouse) were absolutely fantastic when we were there with 2 of our ASD children... going away can be very stressful, everyone was just so accommodating and understanding." - @LeelooDallas72
3. "The Cork International Hotel is working towards becoming more ASD friendly after partnering with the Rainbow Club (@MBRainbowClub) this year. Aids like sensory boxes available on check in and in restaurant, and story boards. But most of all, training of team on awareness by @MBRainbowClub." - @clonergancork
4. "Mount Juliet (@mountjuliet) has large spacious quiet grounds. Lots of outdoor activities both individual and group if needed. There's lots of walks and peaceful woodlands to explore. The equine experience is amazing and staff are very accommodating and facilitate individual needs easily." - @mudmulls
5. "Kelly's Hotel (@Kellysresort) Rosslare, stayed many times with our daughter - nothing is too much trouble. Never an issue leaving her in the kids club, wide open spaces on the grounds and beach and also smaller intimate spaces in the hotel for sensory overload..." - @DawnLeane