The naming of Clonakilty as the country’s first official ‘Autism Friendly Town’ can act as a blueprint for other areas around the country, according to the autism advocacy group AsIAm.
The West Cork town’s status was recognised at a launch event yesterday, with organisers hailing a huge level of commitment from individuals, businesses, and community groups in securing the autism-friendly status.
In all, 91 organisations are included, with the preparatory process seeing engagement and training in 25% of local businesses and voluntary organisations including the GAA, and in half of all local public services.
Engagement and training were also conducted with 50% of school communities in the area and with half of all healthcare professionals.
In all, a quarter, 25%, of the town’s population worked with the process and it has resulted in a three-year town plan to ensure the sustainability of the accreditation.
On a practical level, it will mean autism-friendly shopping options and sensory boxes in some stores and buildings, alongside quiet spaces and other initiatives. The role of assistance dogs is also recognised across the town and the town’s website also has downloadable materials for families and groups visiting the area.
The genesis for the project was the autism-friendly shopping idea at the local Scally’s SuperValu, pioneered three years ago at the suggestion of local woman Patricia O’Leary. She, alongside Scally’s and the Musgrave retail group, were yesterday awarded AsIAm hero awards by Adam Harris, founder of AsIAm.
He said work in the area has been ongoing for the past four months and he paid tribute to the strong local community spirit in Clonakilty and the willingness of people to become engaged with the process.
“It has given us the opportunity to bring autism outside the autism community,” he said, adding that it sends a “powerful message of acceptance to people around Ireland” and means others could follow Clonakilty’s example. He said the question now being posed in other areas is not ‘can we be autism-friendly?’, but ‘will we be autism-friendly?’.
Local woman Karen Crowley, whose 19-year-old son Ben is on the spectrum, said Clonakilty’s new designation will make a real difference to people with autism and their families.
She said one of the biggest fears of parents who have children with autism is of social isolation, particularly for adults who may no longer be engaged with services.
“I am hoping Clonakilty will be more inclusive,” she said, adding that in many cases autism is “an invisible disability” and that the more people know about it, the more tolerant and accepting they will be.
“There is no reason why it can’t be nationwide,” she said, adding: “Clonakilty always wants to be number one at something.”