Twigs are filling the gaps in support and assistance for children with additional needs


Jessica Conlon and her sister Lydia Conlon founded Twigs, an afterschool care provider for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in 2019.

Both Jess and Lydia had come from a background in care with over 20 years experience as Special Needs Assistants between them.

SDCC LEO Twigs Jessica Lydia 8 of 52 Photo Ben Ryan 1

Back Left to Right: Paula Croly and Jessica Conlon. Front Left to Right: Karryn McMahon, Lydia Conlon and Katie Hopkins (Image: Ben Ryan)

Their younger brother and two nephews had been diagnosed with ASD, so they were both very familiar with the gaps in support and assistance for children with additional needs.

Frustrated by the lack of services available to their family, they knew that something needed to be done for children and young people on the spectrum, and from that need, their idea for Twigs began to take shape in November 2018.

The sisters began by running sensory, messy play sessions at Jobstown Community Centre once a week, charging only as much as it cost to deliver the activities.

They hoped to use the sessions to test their ideas and gather more information but after two weeks it had booked out for the six months to come. They knew the demand for these sessions was there.

They set to work devising a free play programme that enable children to learn from peer-to-peer interaction within a safe, supported environment and with the right support from trained, knowledgeable staff.

Twigs SDCC pic Ben Ryan 1

Lydia Conlon and Jessica Conlon, co-founders of Twigs, with Tom Rooney Head of Enterprise LEO South Dublin (Image Ben Ryan)

This evolved into the ground-breaking afterschool care programme which has won Twigs six awards in their first year in operation.

Jess said: “Everyone thought we were mad.

We knew the idea had potential because we knew there was a huge gap in provision for children with ASD, but it was still a huge risk to commit to it – to leave our jobs and live off savings while we started laying the foundations of the business.

“I was googling where we could find support and on my way home from work one evening, I came across LEO South Dublin.

The office was on my route home so I popped in to see if I could speak to someone about the idea and from there, everything took off.”

LEO South Dublin set Jess and Lydia up with a mentor who helped them get to grips with the business side of things and to access the financial supports they needed to get started.

“Everything happened quite fast. We found a premises in Killinarden Enterprise Park, a huge industrial space that was going to need a lot of work to make it fit for purpose in just six weeks. The Business Support Fund enabled us to renovate our premises and the Priming Grant provided capital and salary support.

Our mentor and business advisor are always on the other end of the phone for support and advice and they know us so well, our business advisor puts us down for every training opportunity he thinks would help us expand our skillset and business knowhow. We have complete trust in him.”

It was their business advisor put them forward for the 2019 South Dublin Best Idea category at Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur Awards which they won, and Jess was also named Best Young Entrepreneur. Since then she has also spoken at the National Women’s Enterprise Day in 2019 and spoken to local schools as part of Enterprise Week in 2020.

Twigs celebrated its first birthday on August 29th and reopened its door in September. Jess says she can’t wait to get back: “It’s been such a rollercoaster that lockdown was almost a welcome pause. It forced us to slow down and spend some time reviewing the model, revaluating the business and finalising our programme. Coming back for the summer camp in July, everything ran a lot smoother because we’d had time to really focus on the teething problems.”

As the first assisted after school care service in Ireland, Twigs is setting the precedent for how children with an ASD diagnosis are cared for. Jess is in talks with multiple public and private agencies nationally and internationally who are interested in the Twigs peer-to-peer, child-led model.

With additional health and safety measures in place due to Covid-19, Jess and Lydia received further support from LEO South Dublin’s Trading Online Website Grant and Business Continuity Voucher scheme to plan and prepare for the new normal.

They made further adjustments to reopen safely for a fully booked, four-week summer camp in July and they are on course to reopen again on September 1st. They will have to reduce their numbers to reflect the necessary ratios, but Jess says the fact that they are reopening at all is cause for celebration:

“We started with an idea in September 2018, a year later we were opening the doors to a fully functional, first of its kind assisted afterschool. I don’t think we could have done that without LEO South Dublin. We simply couldn’t have taken the risks we did without their support propping us up in the background.

“It’s been a whirlwind year, but you don’t lose sight of the important things – we’ve had eight children who’ve said their first words while in our care. They’re learning from us and from each other. It’s been so rewarding to make that possible. Our little brother is 22 now but he tells us that he would’ve loved to have something like Twigs when he was growing up, that’s incredible feedback for us.”

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