Limerick Launches First Autism Friendly Intreo Office

July saw the launch of Ireland’s first autism friendly Intreo Office. Intreo Offices, a crucial part of DEASP (Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection) services, are the first point of contact for anyone wishing to avail of the department’s assistance. Denise Houlihan is the organiser of the DEASP  Limerick Autism Initiative: which promises to make DEASP services more accessible for people with sensory needs.

Houlihan, parent to an autistic son, decided to introduce these supports after noticing the difficulties  present for autistic service users.

Houlihan explained that Limerick Intreo Office is a large building which is likely to intimidate neurodiverse members of the public. She also noted that communication was difficult: conversations occurred through a hatch (service providers are seated behind glass). Additionally, Houlihan explained that while the civil service has reduced language to plain English, there is nevertheless a lot of semantics and technical language.

On top of all this, the office wasn’t ideal for sensory needs. The bright lights, noise and sometimes even shouting (the glass often means difficulty in making oneself heard.) Houlihan believed these challenges were enough to deter autistic service users

‘These people falling through the cracks. We had people are turning around because they can’t face going in’

intreo office autism
Set-ups such as these were often intimidating and confusing for autistic service users

Houlihan, an HEO (Higher Executive Officer) in the Intreo office who divides her duties between work upstairs and interacting with the public, approached her line manager with the idea. She and her AP (Assistant Principal) decided while they couldn’t make nationwide changes to these services, they could make their own offices more sensory-friendly. Houlihan outlined this while talking to I Love Limerick “This is really a bottom-up idea…There is no claim that this solves lots of issues but it is a positive in our dealings with people with disabilities and makes the customer journey a more pleasant experience.” 

Constructing the room was relatively simple. Firstly, they chose an interview room to convert into a sensory room. They put down new carpet, installed a sensory lamp, and  a dimmer switch for the overhead lights. Stim toys are available in the room and artwork covers the walls.

The next stage was extensive staff training, provided through AsIAm.  Houlihan commented it was heartening to see staff’s enthusiasm during the training as the transitioning from being confused and hesitant about how to approach an autistic customer to a triumphant ‘I get it now!’ The training was voluntary, taking place on Friday evenings, but staff were committed to improving their services and support was unanimous.

Limerick Intreo office launches sensory room
Pictured: Jim Lynch, divison manager DEASP, Kay Broderick, supervisor, DEASP, Adam Harris, CEO, AsIAm, Denise Houlihan, DEASP, Neil Hoefig, DEASP and Helen Mulqueen, Intreo

The service provides a satisfying accessible service without making the user feel alienated or marginalised. To avail of the service, clients can contact 061-212200 or email limerick@welfare.ie and ask for the Blue Room. A staff member will meet them at the entrance to the building. Houlihan outlined how the staff member greeting them will do so in a way that doesn’t single out the client as someone with additional needs. They felt a high-vis vest or laynard might be too visible as signals of special needs support. They settled for a yellow clipboard being held by trained members of staff.

It’s up to the person themselves if they want to use it for services. An autistic member of the public is free to decide to use standard hatch or the sensory friendly room. Story packs (photos of building, guide of what to expect) are also available on request.

The service is open to autistic clients or any other members of the public with sensory needs. As Houlihan says “If we use autism as a gold standard then it can help everyone.”

For finishing remarks, Denise would encourage any place of work to implement a similar programme; “It seems monumental but it was easy. We set it up for under a thousand euros.Make all your workplaces autism friendly. It’s for your clients and your colleagues. You could well have colleagues on the spectrum.”

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