Clonakilty, in County Cork, Ireland, has put itself on the map by going the extra mile to include people on the autism spectrum.

As the country’s first “Autism Friendly Town”, an initiative backed by retailer SuperValu and autism charity AsIAm, more than 200 of Clonakilty’s businesses, schools and services have been accredited as Autism Friendly Champions, creating a more pleasant environment for those with the condition.

According to the National Autistic Society, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) tend to “see, hear and feel the world differently to other people”, meaning they can become easily overwhelmed by their surroundings. As a result, carrying out basic errands in town can be seen as a challenge.

SuperValu, which is “on a journey to build more inclusive communities”, has already made the shopping experience in their supermarkets “autism-friendly”, by attempting to reduce the sensory overload. Changes as simple as turning off music in stores and dimming lighting can make a big impact.

Clonakilty followed a stringent process to become an autism-friendly town.
Image: Clonakilty followed a stringent process to become an autism-friendly town.

AsIAm founder Adam Harris told the Irish Independent: “The town of Clonakilty has rejected isolation, stigma and loss of potential in favour of autism inclusion, acceptance and cooperation.”

He hopes the changes made within the town will “challenge businesses, organizations and communities across Ireland to think what they can do to become autism-friendly”.

In order to achieve the designation, Clonakilty had to go through a strict accreditation process, which involved training 25% of businesses and voluntary organizations, as well as half its public services, schools and healthcare professionals. It also had to engage 25% of the town’s population and develop a three-year Autism Friendly town plan.

So far, 212 organizations, ranging from local shops and cafes, to sports clubs, to the police and fire stations have made modifications to become autism friendly.

It follows a greater acceptance of service dogs, as well as workshops in community centres and schools to promote an increased understanding of what being on the autism spectrum actually involves.

And the scheme isn’t just limited to locals: for those with autism visiting the seaside town, visual guides and maps are available, along with preparation materials explaining what to expect.

The great lengths taken by this small Irish town to not only accept, but embrace a group who experience difficulty communicating, demonstrates Clonakilty’s strong sense of community. But why is this such an important movement?

The rate of autism diagnoses around the world.
Image: Focus for Health

In a survey of selected developed economies, Ireland had the fifth highest rate of autism diagnoses among children, after Hong Kong, South Korea, the US and Japan, while around one in 65 people in Ireland live with the condition.

It’s not just towns that are adapting their surroundings: Dublin City University has become the “world’s first designated autism-friendly university”, showing Ireland is becoming increasingly autism conscious.

Other countries are following suit. The National Autistic Society, based in the UK, has been working extensively to recreate the autism-friendly conditions in Clonakilty.

From Bath to Aylesbury to Aberdeenshire, the charity has been working to ensure a positive change in the local understanding of autism, as well as producing Autism Friendly Roadmaps to guide towns aspiring to create a more welcoming environment for people with the condition.

New York-based not-for-profit Autism Friendly Spaces works with leisure and recreational businesses to “support the meaningful inclusion of kids with ASD and their families”.

In Canada, the town of Channel-Port aux Basque, Newfoundland, which along with Labrador has the highest rate of ASD in the country, has also encouraged local businesses to undertake autism sensitivity training.

The National Autistic Society has defined an autism-friendly town as “a place autistic people and their families can call home” – something Clonakilty has achieved.