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Apr 22, 2023, Independent: Sensory spaces in Irish hotels – ‘autistic people want to do the same things as everybody else’

Sensory spaces, staff training and quiet hours can all help tourism become more inclusive.

The Pillo Hotel in Ashbourne, Co Meath, has a playroom with a difference.

Its lights are low, its features colourful — from purple and orange beanbags to bubbling water tubes, a ball pit and a pink cube glowing in a playhouse.

There are textured tiles, LED-tipped lights and a dexterity board with wheels to turn, switches to flick and letters to arrange.

“This is a sensory playroom,” the hotel’s Francesca Fennell explains. Her six-year-old son, Rhys, is autistic, and she describes to me the calming effect spaces like this can provide.

“Everything in the room has a purpose... it promotes play and provides space to stim.”

The room is bookable for exclusive, 45-minute slots by families (free to guests/€20 for non-residents), and is one reason the Pillo featured on our Fab 50 list of the best places to stay in Ireland in 2023.

As well as its playroom, designed with Keith O’Grady of Sensory House Ireland, staff are trained in autism awareness, and a two-bedroom suite has been adapted to include a little sensory nook.

April is Autism Awareness Month, and national autism charity AsIAm ( says at least 3.3pc of people in Ireland are autistic. However, its most recent report says 86pc of autistic people, their families and carers “do not believe they have the same chance in Irish society”….

Creating inclusive environments makes business sense too, he adds. Autistic people and their families “are also consumers”.

The Radisson Sligo and Tullamore Court, both in the INua collection, are other examples of hotels with sensory bedrooms — using mobile sensory trolleys with aura projectors and fibrotic lights….

Elsewhere, Roe Park Resort in Co Derry has an “autism-friendly” room featuring special lighting, a sensory area and dine-in room facilities, while Sligo’s Clarion has a sensory playroom available to guests and members of its health club.

In Clonakilty, designated an autism-friendly town by AsIAm, Fernhill House and the Clonakilty Park offer sensory boxes, as well as familiarisation documents like sensory maps or social stories that guests can access ahead of visits.

The Cork International Hotel is another example of a hotel that, describing itself as “ASD aware”, has provided staff training and introduced sensory boxes….

Belfast’s St George’s Market, for example, has quiet hours where music and noise are reduced for a calmer mood. W5, the interactive discovery centre, has a quiet room for visitors “to take a break from the main exhibition spaces, crowds, noise and excitement”.

Passengers with hidden disabilities can book sensory rooms at Dublin and Shannon airports (lanyards are available at these and Cork Airport). AsIAm continues to work with hotels and tourist attractions on training and awareness, and Fáilte Ireland is also recruiting for an ‘inclusive tourism’ manager.

We’ve come a long way, but we’ve a long way to go. The single biggest barrier to autistic people in our communities remains “judgment and attitude”, Harris says.

“I don’t want this to be an unusual selling point,” Fennell says of the Pillo’s sensory spaces and staff training. “I want this to be a standard with every hotel.”

As a travel and tourism industry, inclusion is “our social responsibility”, she adds. “There is a much-needed place for people on the spectrum in society.”


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