An innovative partnership between North East Autism Society and Life Science Centre has been celebrated with a special event at the award-winning Newcastle attraction.
Autistic young people, their families and staff came together to mark three years of collaboration. The young people were presented with certificates and gifted annual passes to the Life Science Centre.
They were also the first people to view a new video documenting the impact of the partnership, which began in 2018 when families from NEAS’s community formed an advisory group to ensure that the Life Science Centre experience was accessible and welcoming to autistic people.
David Jones, Community Liaison Manager at Life Science Centre, delivered a heartfelt speech in which he thanked the young people for opening his eyes to the realities of life as an autistic individual, and the challenges that visiting attractions such as Life can present.
“The main thing we’ve achieved here is friendship,” he said. “We have all got to know each other and you have all helped me to see through a different lens."
Life has made several changes to its visitor experience as a direct result of feedback from the group, including the introduction of Sensory-friendly Sundays, which run monthly from 9.30-11am.
The group also participated in the prototyping and design of two major new exhibitions at Life – Space Zone and Making Studios – as well as helping to develop sensory maps and a visual story, which outlines the experience visitors will have at the centre.
Ed Armstrong, 15, said: “I suggested they should change the chairs because they would make these very high-pitched noises that hurt my ears a lot. They actually changed the flooring so that the squeaking is no longer so much of a problem. It felt pretty great.”
The partnership between Life and NEAS has received widespread recognition and has been hailed as an example of best practice. In the past year, Life and NEAS have also shared their experiences at global online conferences in the U.K, United States and Europe.
Kerrie Highcock, Family Development Manager at NEAS, said: “We know that autistic people can often be socially isolated and lack some opportunities and access to community venues, so this partnership was really key.
“Many autistic people don’t feel like they are listened to, they don’t feel like they are getting their voice heard, but Life has actually listened to the true voices of those young people and turned that into action which is really important.”
NEAS also secured funding from BBC Children in Need to establish the E = mc2 science club for autistic young people, facilitated by David and Kerrie. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the group continued to take part in online science activities - such as stargazing and birdwatching.
David added: “The science club was something we hadn’t anticipated doing at the start of the process, but it’s now in its third cohort and will run for another two years.”
Earlier this year the Life Science Centre was also awarded the charity’s Gold Autism Acceptance Award in recognition of the centre’s commitment to improving the visitor experience for autistic people, as well as increasing staff’s understanding of autism and neurodiversity through on-going specialist training.