The mother of three children with autism is calling on Wexford businesses to adopt social initiatives to make being out in public easier for people with hidden disabilities.
Orla Simone Taylor and her partner Thomas of Kilrane are parents to Joshua (11), Anna (10) and Sarah (2), all of whom have been formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
'With their various, complex sensory processing issues, it can be very difficult to take them out and do everyday things that others may not understand', said Orla, a daughter of the Wexford artist Jackie Edwards.
'Trips to the supermarket, shoe shopping, clothes shopping and public transport are some examples'.
'Joshua jumps up and down a lot. He has a lot of energy. People think he's being hyperactive but it's just his way of dealing with stimuli and trying to calm himself down. He wears ear defenders. Noise is a big thing.'
'Anna has an Asperger's diagnosis. She gets overly animated in response to crowds, noise and lights and looks as if she is misbehaving.
'Sarah who is two and a half is a hand clapper. She claps her hands when she gets excited or in the supermarket when there too many people around, or to block things out. My children are great at blocking things out. The youngest could blank you for half an hour'.
'But when some people see them they think that mother can't control her children. In 2012, when Joshua was about four, I had a woman stop me in Tesco. She asked me could I not control my child. At that time, we were only getting to grips with it ourselves. It opened my eyes to what people are capable of.'
'The two older ones are tall for their age and when people see them they think they're being bold and some people do stare. At this point in my life, 10 years into the autism journey, it all runs off my back.'
'But I would like to know that when they get older and they are teenagers and go into town, that shops and services are accessible to them and they can enjoy the experience', said Orla.
'I won't always be able to protect them. I have to loosen the strings and let them be teenagers and it would make it easier if our local shops got on board with these initiatives'.
Orla said that towards the end of last year, it was encouraging to see retailers such as Argos and Tesco adopting the Sunflower Lanyard Scheme while Transport for Ireland are rolling out the JAM card initiative.
The JAM card, developed by NOW Group, based in Belfast, allows users with a learning disability or communication barrier to tell a driver or staff member in a discreet manner that they need 'just a minute' while boarding a flight, bus or train, making the experience less stressful.
The Sunflower Lanyard, first introduced in Gatwick Airport in 2016, is a subtle but visible symbol that the wearer or someone with them has a disability and may need extra assistance or time.
The service is for customers with hidden conditions such as autism, dementia or anziety and it allows staff in a premises to be aware that people with the lanyard may need some support.
Pettitts SuperValu recently introduced autism friendly shopping evenings with dimmed lights and no music.
So far the JAM scheme been implemented in Dublin but it is not yet in operation in Wexford.
'Dublin Bus has it and Irish Rail recognises it on trains but it's not on Bus Eireann or on private buses', said Orla, adding that the NOW Group, provides online training for drivers.
'We need to make sure that it extends outside the Dublin metropolitan area and that it is rolled out rurally as well', she said.
'We often use public transport with the kids and something as simple as a driver having the understanding that a toddler with autism would be much more manageable if they were allowed to stay secured in their buggy parked in the wheelchair bay, would alleviate much stress for the parent and child.'
'We have a large number of children with hidden disabilities. It's about making society more accessible for our children and more inclusive'.
Orla said she would like to stress that she has had some very pleasant shopping experiences with her children.
'One Sunday recently, I was in Apple Green with my son and the shop assistant asked if we needed the radio lowered as he had noticed that Joshua was wearing ear defenders.
'I am conscious, however, of them getting older and a time in the future when they will be shopping by themselves.
'These social initiatives would make their experience out in public easier and less stressful. Just the knowledge that people are becoming more aware of the barriers faced by individuals with hidden disabilities or conditions is a huge step forward', she said.
For the past two months, Joshua, Anna and Sarah have been wearing Sunflower lanyards which Sarah obtained in Tesco (they are also available in Argos).
'Joshua is very aware of the lanyard and what it means and realises that the lady at the check-out will see him wearing it. It has made him a little bit calmer going into town.'
'Before, if one of the children was having a melt-down, I would drop my groceries and leave but if there is an option of a staff member bringing you to a different check-out, that is a help.
'It's not just for children with autism, but also for children who suffer anxiety and younger children who find queueing a challenge. It can be difficult in a supermarket with a toddler but with a toddler with autism, it can be a nightmare.'
Orla said her children are open about their autism with Anna having no problem telling her friends.
The older ones attend Kilrane national school which has a strong focus on special needs supports and awareness.
Joshua was diagnosed with autism in 2011 (Anna was diagnosed in 2018 and Sarah last year) and there have been many changes for the better in the intervening years, according to Orla who has just started studying for a Psychology degree.
'Adopting these initiatives would make it even better. It's a way of allowing people with hidden disabilities to be themselves when they are out in public'.