CHRISTMAS is coming – along with the festive traditions that most families can take for granted.

For many, it will mean a visit to magical grotto, along with a hearty “Ho-ho-ho” from Santa, flashing lights around the Christmas tree, pulling crackers, and unwrapping surprises.

Or perhaps a trip to the pantomime might be planned, with loud bangs, sudden puffs of smoke, and those age-old phrases shouted at the tops of voices: “He’s behind you…Oh, no he isn’t…Oh, yes he is.”

However, for families living with autism, it can be very different. Instead of being magical, all of this can make Christmas an ordeal.

Thankfully, this year more families than ever before are being able to enjoy the magic of Christmas because of bespoke training being provided by the North-East Autism Society (NEAS) to businesses and entertainment venues across the region.

Just over a year ago, NEAS launched the Autism and Neurodiversity Academy (ANDA) to formalise and develop training it was already providing to many organisations. The passionate objective is for ANDA to become the go-to training provider for any employer wishing to have a greater understanding of autism and neurodiversity.

ANDA delivers innovative training across a variety of sectors, with a team of trainers who have the expertise and flexibility to go wherever the need is. Dozens of organisations in the North-East have already benefited from the training, including Newcastle International Airport, a number of theatres in the region, and several shopping centres.

Whitley Bay Health Centre is one of the latest organisations to receive the training, with GPs, practice nurses and administration staff all attending to get a better understanding of how to support patients in need of extra help. With 1,500 patients in their care, there is a recognition that a greater appreciation of autism and neurodiversity is required.

At the other end of the region, NEAS is forging a new partnership with Stockton Borough Council to launch toddler groups in Billingham, Thornaby and central Stockton to provide a relaxed, safe, and supportive environment for families affected by autism.

ANDA is an increasingly important part of the service offered by NEAS. The academy offers Level One accredited courses in “Neurodiversity: Professional Practice Skills” and “Autism and Diversity”, with both units based on 27 guided learning hours. The training covers an introduction to autism, autism awareness, sensory differences in autism, communication differences, cognition in autism, and emotional wellbeing. It is flexible enough to fit any organisation across multiple sectors, and capable of being delivered in the workplace.

Even Santa Claus and his elves have recently been given the expert training, with Kerrie Highcock – Family Development Manager for NEAS – going into the into Metrocentre to deliver training to staff working around Santa’s grotto over Christmas.
The MetroCentre has this year introduced “Relaxed Santa” experiences between 10am and 12 noon every Sunday on the approach to Christmas and Kerrie’s advice to the grotto staff included:
• Surprises can be difficult for those with autism and other neurodiverse conditions, so some children may not want to receive a present.
• Sudden noises – including Santa’s Ho-ho-ho – need to be toned down.
• Flashing lights need to be avoided, so Santa’s grotto won’t be dimly-lit.
• Queuing can be challenging for autistic youngsters.

The feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. “I had one parent of a little girl say to me that she would never have gone to see Santa under usual circumstances and that this was going to make all the difference to their Christmas,” says Kerrie. “To me, that’s a real measure of success and we need to build on it with other partners in the future.”

Meanwhile, the idea of having a more “relaxed” Santa’s grotto has also been adopted at Spennymoor Town Hall. Officials from Spennymoor Town Council arranged an initial meeting with NEAS to discuss how they could work together in partnership, and NEAS then delivered a half-day training session for Santa and his helpers.
Spennymoor Town Council is now considering future training to develop employment prospects and placements for people with autism in the New Year.

The world of pantomime is also being adapted to help those with autism. For example, NEAS has been working closely with Sunderland Empire for around five years. As well as supporting the theatre team with their programme throughout the year, a “relaxed” performance of Peter Pan will be staged at 5pm on December 27, with a NEAS staff member on hand to offer support. Attending a theatre show can be extremely challenging for some autistic people, especially the need to sit still for throughout the show.

During relaxed shows, individuals can get up and move around. Parents, carers and other family members don’t feel judged and they have the invaluable opportunity to connect with others in a similar situation.

“These performances really are magical, enabling children and adults with autism the chance to experience the theatre,” says Kerrie. “Small changes are made to lighting, pyrotechnics, and the structure of the performance, and this all adds up to a massive difference.”

Differences are also being elsewhere. The Sage, Gateshead, will present a relaxed performance of “The Snowman” by The Royal Northern Sinfonia at 2pm on December 22. NEAS staff have been liaising with The Sage all year round and, back in April, The Royal Northern Sinfonia staged a “relaxed” classical concert, with audience members again free to move around.

It was also acceptable to make a noise during the performance, lights were left on, and doors left open to allow people to come and go as they pleased, with a “chill-out” room available.

Northern Stage, in Newcastle, is presenting a relaxed performance of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” at 2pm on December 29, and The Gala Theatre in Durham is following suit with a relaxed performance of Snow White at 6pm on January 3.

“Through this training we are changing attitudes, starting dialogue and helping to promote the positive narrative about autism,” says Kerrie Highcock. “Next year, NEAS wants to continue this public conversation further and work with more partners from all sectors to ensure the voices of autistic people are heard, and work to develop a society that takes into account the very real challenges autistic individuals face on a daily basis.”

The momentum will continue in 2019, with new training partners including County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, and National Rail.
Slowly but surely, thanks to the dedicated work of the North East Autism Society, there is clear evidence that our part of the world is becoming more autism-friendly.
And that’s the best gift some families could wish for this Christmas.

• Could your organisation benefit from bespoke training from ANDA?
To find out more, go to www.anda.org. uk, telephone 0191 410 9974, or email info@anda.org.uk.