Neurodiverse festival: ‘This is all about making a more inclusive Dublin’

City council event to run over two sessions with Merrion Square Park divided into zones of activity

A celebration of the neurodiverse community will take place in Dublin this Sunday, April 28th.

Sensoria, a neurodivergent-friendly festival, will happen in Merrion Square Park on the south side of the city centre. The festival is a celebration of the neurodiverse community through a considered and creative live outdoor experience. The free-ticketed event is fully subscribed and aims to encourage neurodiversity acceptance, equality and inclusion in a safe and open environment.

The Dublin City Council event will run over two sessions and means the park being divided into zones, featuring a range of stimulating and quieter performances, workshops and activities per the diverse needs of attendees. Areas include the main stage, workshop and performance tent, street theatre zone, neuro spectacular, aerial show, sensory dome, sensory garden, sensory messy play and the big dig.

“When it comes to festivals, it’s never been done before so we’re really, really excited about it and much like what we’ve done in terms of the relaxed space in the middle of the Paddy’s Day parade, what we’re saying to Dubliners is, ‘this is your city’,” said Lord Mayor Daithí de Róiste. “Very often, those who are neurodiverse have to adapt every single day in order to navigate our city, and all we’re looking to do is meet them halfway, so this speaks to them.”


He added that Dublin does festivals well, so “why can’t we have a neurodiverse festival, where we’ll go, it’ll be quiet, Merion Square normally holds about 40,000 people, this will be 6,000 people over two different sessions, so it’ll be laid back, it’ll be relaxed and there’ll be something for anybody that’s neurodiverse.

“This is all about making a more inclusive Dublin, I was clear when I got elected, I don’t have a magic wand to fix waiting lists and stuff at the HSE, but I can provide leadership in the city to make the city more inclusive.”

The organisers consulted with Neurodiversity Ireland and AsIAm in the planning of the festival.

“You have so many families that have a neurodivergent family member and the impact of that can be that the entire family is precluded from going places, so in our case, we have to have two adults if we bring one of my daughters and another child, because she likes to move a lot, particularly in a new environment,” said Emma Weld Moore – a volunteer with Neurodiversity Ireland – who has three children, two of whom are neurodivergent.

“The consequence of that is that you either have to split the family up, or you just don’t go. So this is a family-friendly event, for families who have a child or family member who is neurodivergent, so that the entire family can come and experience the festival, which should be the norm,” she said. “Neurodiversity Ireland is very supportive of this event.”

Adam Harris, chief executive of autism charity AsIAm, said the festival is an important step forward for accessibility. “Family days out and cultural events that most people take for granted are too often inaccessible for the, at least, one in 27 people in Ireland who are autistic,” he said. “Sensoria will provide a predictable, supportive environment which will enable autistic people to have the same chance to enjoy a festival experience, right in the heart of our capital city.”

AsIAm’s youth leadership team member Emily Mullock has also expressed her excitement for the festival, which is “not only accessible to the autistic community but celebrates neurodiversity in a fun and inclusive way. It means a lot to me that so many neurodivergent individuals will be able to come together in a safe and welcoming environment to celebrate their true authentic selves.”

Even the festival signage has been created with the neurodivergent community in mind, said festival programme manager Karen Walshe, of Archetype. “So how we do the graphics, that would be easily just quickly understood when you come on to the site and the traders and just maps, we’re also creating this visual downloadable document that everybody who signed up will be sent it and so it allows for the audience to predict everything that’s coming,” said Walshe. “They’ll know exactly what the artwork is going to look like on the site, they’ll know exactly all the artists on the schedule, they’ll know exactly all the traders, a map of the space, so where everything is, so they can plan.

“They can explain to their children that this is where we’ll go first, and then we’ll move on to this, and this, and then we’ll go home, that kind of thing. It really allows for proper pre-planning which is very important for families with neurodiverse children coming out.”

One performer at the festival is Moss Russell, who has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and has two neurodivergent children, aged 10 and 13.

When Walshe called asking if she would like to take part in the festival, Russell said she could not get over the degree of understanding in the event. “I was like, nothing like this has existed in Ireland before, this is something that’s really, desperately needed. It feels very geared towards a neurodivergent audience and we really need spaces that are directed at them, and I was so excited by the whole idea,” said Russell. “I was like, I really want to be part of this, I would like to create something”.

And create something she did, with her one-woman show, Squish, Stomp, Spin – the Magic of Stim, going on the main stage at the festival, which celebrates stimming, in an attempt to break down the stigma associated with it, and with autistic people in general via storytelling. “It’s kind of got this Aesop’s fable sort of a thing, it’s kind of full of morals and examples of things that are upsetting for autistic people and the whole idea behind it is to inspire everyone to try stimming and just moving their body in whatever way feels good,” said Russell.

“I’m really happy they’re running this event ... there isn’t nearly enough autistic art in the world and that’s how we make the changes, first we make the art, then we influence the culture, then that influences the policy. Ultimately, I feel like, a world that is friendly to autistic people is generally quite friendly to everyone.”

Ellen O’Donoghue

Ellen O’Donoghue

Ellen O'Donoghue is an Irish Times journalist