Children with autism, and their families, have a new holiday retreat, with the introduction of a sensory room at BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort. The Reilly Room was named after Reilly Watts, who had Asperger’s Syndrome and sadly passed away in 2018. The Watts family – one of the founding names of BIG4 – introduced the first sensory room to BIG4 Renmark Riverfront Holiday Park in South Australia in late 2018. Due to its success, The Reilly Room expanded to BIG4 Ballarat Goldfields and BIG4 West Beach Parks Adelaide before being introduced at the Airlie Beach resort.
Features include a large free-standing hammock, weighted blankets, a lamp that projects lovely blue ocean waves onto the ceiling with calm music playing in the background. A collection of cushions provides a variety of tactile experiences for children, a ‘Bilbo’ rocks or spins a child and a peanut-shape gym ball is paired with a large timer to help them finish bouncing. Other activities include a sensory toy box full of toys, kinetic sand, play dough and colouring and drawing.
Reilly’s aunty, Annette Terrill – daughter of BIG4 co-founders Des and Margaret Watts – said her family’s passion for accessible tourism stemmed from their experience with Reilly. “We understand, first-hand, what it can be like travelling with a family member with autism,” she said. “It can be very overwhelming for them to be away from the safety and comfort of their own home. Travelling for long hours in the car, through unfamiliar surroundings, can be very unsettling for a child with autism. This is what sparked my family’s idea to create a sensory room. Initially we were unsure if such a room would be practical in our environment, or even be used. But after brainstorming and thorough research, we thought if it was successful, it would be a huge benefit and asset to us and BIG4 guests.”
It’s estimated 1 in 100 people in Australia have been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, with this number steadily increasing. Many shopping centres and some resorts are beginning to install sensory rooms to cater for the ever-growing need. However, it requires much more effort than simply throwing in a beanbag, blanket and disco light. “My sister-in-law Gail Watts (Reilly’s mother) is an occupational therapist, specialist autism teacher and previous park owner, so no stone was left unturned when designing the sensory rooms,” Annette said. “It has all the features you’d expect to find in an autism-specific educational setting. Our vision was to turn BIG4 Renmark into Australia’s ultimate inclusive tourism experience. We’re so pleased we could contribute to this vision, and even expand The Reilly Room to other BIG4 holiday parks.”
BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort owner Greg McKinnon was also excited to expand the park’s offerings. “BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort has been family-owned and operated for more than three generations,” he said. “We believe every family deserves a great holiday and we are so pleased to provide our guests with a fully facilitated sensory room. To make it easier on families and more comfortable for a child with autism, we are providing guests who plan to use the room with a special Welcome Book. This book is designed to make the holiday experience for families as easy as possible.”
The Reilly Room is accessible with a key that guests can keep for the duration of their stay, so they can use the room whenever they please. The facility is set up for use by one family at a time for the comfort and benefit of the user. An occupied sign highlights when the room is being used to avoid disruption.