Open-door policy: Autism-friendly hotel in Cork

BEST BUDDIES: Stephen O’Mahony with his brother Sean — both boys are on the autism spectrum.

Awareness-training plays vital role, says Helen O’Callaghan

PARENTS can struggle when out in public with a child on the autistic spectrum and something in that environment upsets the child.

It’s with the aim of making things somewhat easier for such parents that the Rainbow Club Cork Centre for Autism hopes hotels/restaurants will be open to staff awareness-training around realities for families affected by autism.

“When staff are aware of how the condition might manifest in the restaurant — a child is overwhelmed by the smells, crowds or that it’s a new place and is freaking out in their chair — that’s of huge benefit to parents,” says Karen O’Mahony, who founded the Rainbow Club with husband Jon in 2015.

O’Mahony was speaking as Cork International Hotel teamed up with the Club as its charity partner for 2019. The partnership will see the hotel make its environment for guests with autism more inclusive by tailoring facilities. It’s also providing its team with awareness-training and is working with Rainbow Club to determine additions and changes at the hotel.

Such awareness-training will help staff recognise the needs of children with autism. “A waiter would realise here’s a child who might need sound-cancelling, in the form of ear defenders, or a weighted blanket — an OT piece of equipment that helps a child to calm — or a sensory box with something they can grab onto like theraputty. It’s very hard to be a child with autism in society — people can be very quick to judge behaviour. And if parents have a bad experience, it’ll put them off going there again,” says mum-of-four Karen, whose children, Sean, 13, and Stephen, 9, are both on the autism spectrum.

“When Sean was diagnosed aged five, Jon and I were the first in both our families to encounter autism. You very quickly lose friends because you can’t meet up — you can’t leave your child with anyone. As a family, we couldn’t do stuff together. We didn’t do Halloween or Christmas because Sean became overwhelmed — we very quickly learned to avoid situations,” says Karen.

“You should be able to go to the supermarket and know the staff will help mum or dad if they’re struggling in that moment. You should be comfortable going to the cinema, knowing it’s OK for your child to walk around because walking calms them.”

The Rainbow Club provides a space where children on the spectrum can be themselves to play/learn/make friends, surrounded by adults who understand them.

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