Photo : Alan Gardner and Adam Harris visit The Sensory Gardens with The Autism Committee and The Tidy Towns Committee to celebrate the one-year anniversary as Ireland’s first Autism Friendly Town. Photo by Dermot Sullivan.
Over the past year, Clonakilty’s journey to becoming Autism-Friendly – through the partnership with AsIAm and SuperValu alongside local retailers Eugene and Catriona Scally of Scally’s SuperValu – has seen businesses, organisations and community groups throughout Clonakilty undergo training and organisational changes to receive accreditation. This initiative and accreditation was a first for anywhere in Ireland and the last year has been an incredible success for the whole Clonakilty community.
To celebrate the anniversary Alan Gardner, star of the Channel 4 programme, The Autistic Gardener, visited Clonakilty to see Ireland’s first Autism Friendly town and share how autism has made him one of the world’s leading landscape designers and how autistic people can focus on their strengths to find careers they enjoy.
Alan was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 55. “I always thought I was being artistic, when in fact I was being autistic,” says Alan, who describes himself as a conceptual designer. “I design things that have a narrative,” he explains “gardens based on urban ordnance survey maps or jet airliners, mathematical sequences…I’m renowned for being the person able to create a garden to convey a message.”
Over the years, Alan has created 40 Royal Horticultural Society gardens and won numerous awards at Chelsea, Hampton Court and Tatton Park. He won a silver medal at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015.
“I can only see being autistic as being a positive…we have something that is generally termed as a special interest. I like to refer to it as an intense interest. A lot of people typically see it as an obsession. It isn’t an obsession; it is a place of comfort, a place of control and a place where we feel safe. I have made my livlihood doing something that I truly love to do…it’s a bit like Harry Potter – the wand chooses the wizard – the special interest chooses the person!”
One of the most popular additions to Clonakilty during this journey has been the sensory garden. Located on the grounds of the West Cork Model Railway the sensory garden was developed to create an environment within the community that would enrich the lives of children and adults living with Autism by providing opportunities to play and explore in a safe and secure space all while enjoying a calming sensory experience. The garden features elements that appeal to all five senses using a range of materials and plants. Exploration in nature improves physical, sensory and emotional health and supports overall well-being and parents have commented that their children have found the garden captivating and engaging, asking to return again and again.
The aim of this SuperValu and AsIAm initiative is to create a greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism so that our communities become more accessible and enjoyable places for autistic people to live in.
Adam Harris, AsIAm’s founder and CEO was also in Clonakilty for the celebrations. “Being autism-friendly isn’t just a destination, it’s a journey,” comments Adam. “The really exciting thing now is that with the learnings we have from Clonakilty we can bring them elsewhere. As Clonakilty continues to grow, we’re hoping to make more and more communities autism-friendly. We have eleven towns across the country now formally on the journey and there are others who have expressed interest.”
Adam said that feedback from visitors to Clonakilty has been incredibly positive. “What I think is interesting is that all these accommodations – be it the sensory garden, the quiet times, the social stories – they’re all really important…but what this is actually about is that when people drive into Clonakilty and see the Autism-Friendly sign, they know that if someone becomes overwhelmed or needs to do something in a slightly different way, they’re in an environment that understands and will support that person.
“There are many towns around the world that have announced autism-friendly initiatives but Clonakilty is the only town we can find that has created a very demanding framework.
“If you think of what this initiative means for someone who’s five-years-old in Clonakilty and is diagnosed with autism today; it’s not just that they can go to shop in Scally’s during quiet time on a Tuesday evening, it’s actually that they’re growing up in an environment where they’re just accepted as part of normal diversity. Their need to do things in a slightly different way is totally normalised and celebrated and the impact I believe this is going to have in terms of opportunities in the workplace and in terms of people’s own self-esteem and mental health is going to be enormous.
“Both organisations, SuperValu and AsIAm are really excited now about rolling this out to the next level right across the country.”
SuperValu Marketing Director, Ray Kelly said, “Supporting Clonakilty on their journey to become Autism Friendly was a proud moment for SuperValu last year. It is our ambition at SuperValu to build more inclusive communities across Ireland and Clonakilty has proved a massive success. The work the Clonakilty community did to receive the accreditation and in the year since is truly impressive and we look forward to continuing our support of Clonakilty and the other 11 towns that have just begun their journey to become accredited Autism Friendly Towns.
SuperValu is committed to raising understanding and awareness of autism among its customers and staff. With over 50,000 families in Ireland living with autism, those affected face barriers to inclusion because of the attitudes of people who may not have first-hand experience of autism.