Killaloe’s Thinking Toys has walked away with the leadership prize from the 2022 Lean Business awards.

The prestigious award show, which took place in Croke Park last month, gave a prize to Thinking Toys for an overall organisational change in their business. The award is a recognition of Thinking Toys’ 18 years in the business of sensory specific products.

The company began in 2004 after its founder Áine Conacur realised how few toys were available for her daughter Ailis and other children with special needs. “Ailis was born in London with a condition called Sturge-Weber syndrome. Essentially, she had very bad epilepsy and devlopemental delay. Then we moved back to Ireland, and I’d be buying things from England, America, Europe because I wasn’t able to source things in Ireland for her,” explained Áine.

“When she was eight or nine and in school, I was looking for a part time job around school hours and Michael, my husband, who’s an accountant, said you’re always giving out about lack of resources why don’t you do something about it. I thought that’s a great idea so that’s where it started, just as a little number for me and within two years Michael had joined me because we were just flat out,” she said.

Almost two decades later the business has turned into one of Killaloe’s most successful enterprises with nine people employed in the business including Ailis, now 26, who works part-time with them.

Despite all the time that has passed Áine says mainstream toy retailers still don’t cater well for those with special needs. “I don’t think [mainstream retailers] quite grasp it but I suppose it’s two fold really, as a parent starting out you’re bewildered and you’re suddenly hit with a lot of language, ‘fine motor skills’, ‘growth motor skills, ’visual perception’, ‘sensory perception’, you name it you’re hit with it and it kind of takes you a while to get your head around what that actually means for your child. So, that’s what I try to do with my website, I’ve tried to set it up so that the parent can easily find out what the child needs. Then the other thing we’ve done is getting the pitch right for your child, a lot of kids with special needs will have poor fine motor skills and an OT will continuously tell you to do threading activities. So, you might go into a regular toy shop and find threading activities but they tend to be at the higher end of ability, so what I do is start off at the easiest level of threading and work it step by step so you can move your child along. That’s what I think is one of the biggest problems, for our kids you need to break the activity down into easily achievable steps and it’s about having those all in one place”.

For Áine the most important thing is to meet your child at their pace, “one thing I always say to parents is that you follow your child’s lead, you can’t force your child to do a jigsaw especially if they’re visual perception skills are weak. What you have to do is make the jigsaw interesting to them, it doesn’t matter if you do all the pieces and they do one piece, that’s success. Like with Alis when we began with connect four, she was just posting the pieces in, but I was happy because she was having to pick them up and grasp them and then post them. Then I moved her on to doing little patterns like three red, two yellow, three red, two yellow, and see if she could copy that and now you’re sequencing. Then when she was nine or ten because she loved that game and was very comfortable with it I thought her the rules and now she’s 26 and we call her the connect 4 queen because she will beat you hands down, so with our activities if you can pull them into it you can get longevity out of them”.

Despite the business growing extensively since its beginnings of selling toys from a physical shop to now supplying parents, schools, and HSE therapists throughout the country online, Áine has no plans to take the business out of her native Killaloe, “It’s great [being in Killaloe], I can walk to work everyday there’s no travel time. After Ailis’ surgery and diagnosis, my family were all back here and I remember I was awake one night, I couldn’t sleep, and then the next morning I said ‘Mick I want to go home but I want to go home to my home, Killaloe’, he had no say in it”.

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If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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