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 sensory playroom at the Pillo Hotel in Co Meath

The sensory nook set in a suite at the Pillo Hotel

A mobile sensory trolley at the Radisson Sligo

Pól Ó Conghaile

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.

The sensory nook set in a suite at the Pillo Hotel

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”.

“Sometimes when we discuss things like autism, we confine ourselves to what we might call ‘service land’, where we only see autistic people as people who need school places or to access therapy,” says AsIAm’s CEO Adam Harris.

“Whereas autistic people want to do the same things as everybody else.”

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.

The Radisson’s idea came from the hotel’s Innovation Team, and is created to benefit “children with autism, ADHD and a variety of other disabilities,” the hotel says.

The trolleys are supplied by Multisensory Ireland, and also feature a colour command interactive panel and waterless rainbow tube, among other features.

A mobile sensory trolley at the Radisson Sligo

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.

“Predictability is really important,” Harris says. “That sense of not knowing what to expect can often be most challenging and stressful for an autistic person.”

"Also, you can’t always change every aspect of the environment, but you can give people tools to help them manage the environment according to their need, and that’s where sensory boxes can be really important.”

He also points to the issue of affordability.

“It’s really important that we think about the price point for families… in our Same Chance report, it comes across very clearly that the cost of living crisis is being felt even more acutely by autistic people and their families.

"That’s because there are often additional costs to raising a child on the autism spectrum, or to being an autistic adult due to the high unemployment within our community.

"So I think it is important to think about ways we can make these facilities accessible to families in terms of price point as well.”

Some hotels and tourist attractions also have ‘quiet rooms’ that people can withdraw to, or dedicated time slots.

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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