Going on holidays was seldom relaxing for Gail Watts.

Key points:

  • Gail Watts founded the Reilly Room Project to help establish more inclusive holiday settings for people with autism
  • A Whitsundays holiday park is the latest to open a sensory room, which is designed to help calm children who may find holidays overwhelming
  • Local councillors hope it inspires other accommodation providers to invest in inclusive tourism opportunities

The shake-up of routine, busy environments and sudden absence of all things familiar was highly stressful for her son, Reilly, who lived with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Ms Watts, a special education teacher from Ballarat in Victoria, said families with children on the autism spectrum often opted to stay at home because it was easier than going on a holiday.

Hoping to change that, she is campaigning for more inclusive holiday settings through an initiative in honour of her son.

Reilly was aslo diagnosed with epilepsy and passed away in 2018 aged 23 after a suspected seizure.

“It was sudden and unexpected, and it just rocked our world,” Ms Watts said.

The sensory room includes a hammock, weighted blankets and calming music with activities including kinetic sand and play dough.(Supplied: Big4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort)

Familiarity amid the unfamiliar

A holiday park in the Whitsundays this week opened a sensory room designed by Ms Watts as part of the Reilly Room Project.

The space has been decked out with features including a hammock, weighted blankets, and activities specifically designed to calm children with autism who may be feeling overwhelmed.

“What they really need is a room that’s quiet and somewhere they can occupy themselves … and block out the anxiety of their world being out of kilter while they’re on holiday,” Ms Watts said.

The Big4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort is the fourth holiday park in Australia to incorporate a Reilly Room, and the first in Queensland.

“[Holidays are about] creating those great memories to live on forever,” resort owner Greg McKinnon said.

Whitsunday Regional councillors Al Grundy and Jan Clifford officially open the Reilly Room at the Big4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort.(ABC Tropical North: Angel Parsons)

Improving inclusivity

Whitsunday Regional Councillor Jan Clifford said there was huge potential for the tourism region to become more inclusive.

“I sincerely hope this spreads to other properties and other organisations,” she said.

Ms Watts said she believed positive change was happening in the sector.

“It’s a wonderful time to be involved in this kind of thing.”