The Autism Friendly Waterford initiative was launched in style on Sunday in the Tower Hotel, with over 200 in attendance. Among the guests were Minister of State Mary Butler, Marc Ó Cathasaigh TD, Senator John Cummins, Councillors Cristíona Kiely, John Hearne and David Daniels and Gerald Hurley, CEO Waterford Chamber.

Opening the event, Lynda Lawton, Waterford Chamber, who acted as MC, welcomed everybody to the launch of this very exciting endeavour and said as a mother of an autistic child herself, this initiative was very important to her both on a personal and professional capacity.

Mayor of Waterford City & County, Cllr John O’Leary, said this initiative “will help overcome barriers and bring great benefits to the city”. Waterford has already been voted the best place to live in Ireland. This, he said, would be another feather in our cap if we became the first Autism Friendly City in Ireland. Waterford could lead the way in this regard creating a truly inclusive society.

Dick White from AsIAm, gave a brief overview of the programme. He explained AsIAm’s work in creating awareness and acceptance of autism. “I am delighted to see such a large crowd coming to the launch of this initiative and with your support and engagement I have no doubt that Waterford will achieve its goal of becoming Ireland’s first Autism Friendly City.”

David Galvin, a teacher from the ASD unit in St. Paul’s Secondary School, spoke of the gaps in the education system that need to be addressed. He also outlined the wonderful work that is being done in St. Paul’s, not only to cater for autistic students, but also to create a culture of tolerance and acceptance of diversity amongst the school population, something that can be replicated in other schools through the Autism Friendly initiative.

Amanda Fox from the Cara Autism Support Service in the National Learning Network, spoke of her own late diagnosis and how she organised a party to celebrate it and to help her son come to terms with his diagnosis, which he was initially ashamed of and wanted to hide from his friends. She listed the barriers facing autistic people and how the initiative can help to close some of the gaps.

Lynda also interviewed the four parents who started the ball rolling, Maolíosa Ní Chléírigh, Tish Holton, Deborah Gray and Frances Jacob. They explained that it was a three year programme and businesses and public services will be approached and asked to take measures to become autism friendly by undergoing staff training, providing sensory accommodations and giving employment, where appropriate to autistic people. 80% of autistic people are underemployed because the system does not cater for them.

Many families attended and children were entertained by Ready Steady Play, a children’s entertainer specialising in Sensory Play.

The event was kindly sponsored by Healthy Ireland and the Waterford Lions Club, with the support of WLR and the initiative is being rolled out in partnership with Waterford City & County Council and Waterford Chamber.

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