Tag Archives: communication

Storytelling for people with learning disabilities: ‘We just natter away’

Lisa Johnson of the writing group Story Balloons (pic: Jonathan Raimondi)
Lisa Johnson of the writing group Story Balloons (pic: Jonathan Raimondi)
.

Lisa Johnson is a writer. The 30-year-old from Sheffield recently had a book published, a collection of poems, songs and stories put together with fellow authors from her writing collective. Today she will take part in a workshop in her home city, explaining the creative process and encouraging others to write.

She says of Story Balloons, her weekly writing group: “It is something I look forward to.” Uptown Boy, her poem about love, she adds, makes her feel “very happy”. “I always wanted to write,’ she says, adding that writing has changed her: “I feel more confident, proud of what I’ve achieved.”

Story Balloons helps counter stereotypes and improve confidence, and has led to a published book – read more in my piece in the Guardian

Social networks and mental health: supportive environment or a stalking ground for cyber-bullies?

Bullying crushes a child’s self esteem and confidence. It can leave a child feeling alone, totally helpless, and with no one to turn to. In their childhood innocence and naivety some even blame themselves for their torment. Many schools now have robust anti bullying policies in the form of bullying charters.

We live in an age where teachers acknowledge widely the emotional needs of children more than ever before. Resources such as SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) provide increased emotional support in many schools.

As a consequence bullying has now left many classrooms, but not all. This is commendable but, not only do schools’ attitudes and actions in response to bullying vary considerably, is it enough?

And now in the age social networking sites it has insidiously entered the sanctuary of children’s bedrooms. Running away from the school environment and threatening bullies now leads straight to the bedroom, a once safe haven where a child’s computer suddenly provides no way of escape. Computers are the contemporary child’s toy and some may say the innocence of youth has died as a result. This year’s forthcoming Anti-bullying Week, for example, has a special focus on cyber-bullying.

These issues have been on my mind since the death of 14-year-old Hannah Smith who suffered relentless bullying online. Her death was not a stark reminder of how vulnerable our children are not protected from bullies even in the supposed safety of their own homes. There has been intense speculation and much knee-jerking as a result of her death, but the bottom line is that social media played a part in her suicide. Whatever happened, she was a vulnerable child.

But social networking sites can be so liberating for many providing an outlet for those who lack self confidence in face to face interactions and who might have smaller social networks than usual. Many can make friends and form relationships online that they would otherwise struggle to in school.

These sites can be very helpful, especially for those who lack social contact, or may have poor social skills, agoraphobia etc, but the flip side of the coin is the bullying issue. Reaching an acceptable compromise regarding social networking will not be easy because the genie has now been let out of the box, so to speak.

When experiencing low moods, your reality becomes alien to that of everyone else. I have always advised people to seek help at the earliest opportunity to prevent depression reaching this critical stage. And this is where social sites that support mental health can help.

There is the social site launched by comedian Ruby Wax, for example, Black Dog Tribe, “a place in which like-minded people can find their own ‘tribe’ and share experiences in a supportive online community through forums, blogs, daily news and mental health information”. Another example is Kent and Medway NHS Trust, for example, which is piloting Buddy, an online system that records mood changes. And there are a raft of support-specific online forums linked to various charities and support groups which can make all the difference to vulnerable people.

This is the positive aspect of these sites.

Yet it is too simplistic an argument that social media and networks alone can help prevent depression. An holistic approach can include talking therapies, physical exercise and medication, if appropriate. These therapies can support each other – medication, as I know from personal experience and from my nursing career, has its down side. It can also make your mood fluctuate wildly, become disinhibited and even suicidal. Having easy access to online support can, at times like this, be vital. These issues are brought into sharp focus by the news today that the number of people needing treatment for mental health issues will have increased by more than 2 million by 2030.

We should look closely at both the negatives and positives about social media and networks in relation to mental health – and ignore them at our peril. While it is also wrong to assume that social media alone can push someone towards mental health problems, excessive use of social sites, as is often reported, can itself lead to problems.

Children sitting for hours in front of a screen removes them from the social contact of others that will improve their face to face communication skills and confidence in later life. Effective communication involves eye contact, body language, and gesturing. All ignored when lying in bed hitting a keyboard in silent and lonely surroundings.

Cyber bullies and unpoliced social media sites populated by children (or those posing as children) are not part of a civilised society. We must make it all stop. Now.

Teens teach peers about respect and relationships

Oii My Size, a web-based project to raise awareness about respect in teen relationships
Oii My Size, a web-based project to raise awareness about respect in teen relationships

Late night on the estate, London. Two hooded and capped teen boys hang out, waiting for a couple of teen girls. Nervously the girls approach. Tiana used to go out with Stigz, but she’s not sure about this new guy he’s brought along. She thought they were going out to a party, but the boys lead them to this new guy’s place. His parents are out. Tiana fights her instincts to run. The door shuts. The boys start to grab them. The girls resist but they won’t stop. Everything happens so fast…

Thankfully these events are just part of an awareness-raising film for Oii My Size, a youth-led project targeting teens. The Oii My Size project. For those not down with the kids, “my size” means “my kind of girl”. The project is based on a colourful website full of videos and pictures to help teens understand what makes relations between teen boys and girls appropriate and respectful.

Storyboard-2b

The scenario described above is, however, based on a true story and reflects the reality of life for many teen girls. From serious assault like this, to sharing naked pictures of them (sexting) and being spoken to disrespectfully, life can be a minefield for girls when it comes to teen boys. A recent study by the NSPCC reported up to 40 per cent of young people had been involved in sexting, mainly under pressure from other schoolchildren while a conference in Manchester run by the area’s Safeguarding Children Board heard reports from schools that sexting had become a “daily problem” affecting girls as young as 11 years old.

No one knows this better than the group of 12 teen girls who have shaped Oii My Size.

The girls, aged 16, from Pimlico, London, met to socialise until becoming involved in a Peabody Staying Safe campaign. The girls had previously worked with youth arts company Dream Arts to produce a warning video about staying safe around boys and jumped at the chance to spread the message about safe relationships and the dangers of sexting (sending indecent images to an under-18 is illegal). The video, which starred the girls themselves, is now on the Oii My Size site.

All of the girls had some kind of personal experience with the topic – whether affected directly, like the events in the video, or having friends who had to move schools due to sexting, or being exposed to abuse such as a Blackberry Messenger “slags list” – where girls are publicly named and shamed.

The girls were supported by Peabody, Dream Arts and youth-led media social enterprise Mediorite, which I volunteer with. Peabody worked with the girls under its Staying Safe campaign, Dream Arts supported them to work together and provided them with a specialist support worker for two hours each week after school.

As well as tackling issues such as sexting , Oii My Size focuses on disrespectful chat-up lines (or “churpz”) and when to say no in teen relationships. The magazine-style website also has light-hearted videos of teen boys trying out their best (read:worst) churpz on the unimpressed girls, like “Do you work at Subway? Cos you got me on a foot-long” and invites users to “rate my churpz”. This cleverly avoids preaching by demonstrating that the disrespectful churpz just make girls feel embarrassed, intimidated and degraded. In other words –boys- they do not work.

oimysize_screengrab

The website also contains a video of Althia Legal-Miller, a doctoral research student at King’s College, London, and an expert in female adolescence and violence. She explains the dangers of sexting, promoting the key message of “trust your instincts” to teenage girls in relationships.

The girls behind the project say they “have chosen this topic as we have realized that we feel intimidated and disrespected due to our gender.” Team member Shanice George explains that “hopefully the website will educate young girls and boys that sexting is illegal, cos we didn’t even know it was illegal until we started the project, and if we didn’t know how were other people to know? Also we wanted to educate boys on how they talk to girls… and we are now working with a domestic violence woman from Peabody and we would like to make girls aware about domestic violence too.”

Lucy Ferguson from Mediorite adds that the girls felt the topic “was a real, urgent issue that just wasn’t being tackled at school, and that no one was tackling it…The project was a success because the girls really challenged themselves to think about the audience.”

The girls not only gained new skills from the project but also won a Silver Arts Award, an Open College Network accreditation in project management via Peabody and a Nominet internet safety award. The website got 2000 hits in 24 hours the day after they won the award, and has been promoted at school assemblies by the girls to over 3000 people.

The project’s audience will undoubtedly grow, as Lucy Ferguson explains: “Most youth groups don’t really explore what someone who doesn’t know them is going to think of their project, they don’t think about how to sell and engage the audience, but these girls really got that. So ‘rate my churpz’ – as a traffic-driver is a really sophisticated idea. It shows they understood the need to engage boys too, and draw people in with a sense of humour, and then engage them with the harder content. Most youth groups are completely unforgiving to the audience. This was a much more sophisticated approach.”

A perspective on the Paralympics

Singer and rapper Dean Rodney, part of the Games Through Our Eyes website
There’s no shortage of media coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics, but one new online platform offers a unique and important perspective on the games.

Games Through Our Eyes is an accessible website for the 2012 Paralympic Games created by young reporters with learning disabilities. The team is supported by arts group Heart n’ Soul and social enterprise communications agency Poached Creative.

Games Through Our Eyes is covering wheelchair rugby, the three Paralympic sports open to people with learning disabilities (swimming, athletics and table tennis) as well as the Cultural Olympiad. This year is first time in 12 years that people with learning disabilities have been allowed to compete after Spain’s basketball team faked their disabilities in the 2000 Sydney games.

The reporting team includes Dean Rodney, a 22-year-old singer and rapper with autism whose audio-visual project, the Dean Rodney Singers, is part of the Cultural Olympiad. Dean, who has honed his performing talents through Heart n’Soul and who I’ve blogged about before, is part of the Unlimited showcase at London’s Southbank Centre starting today. Unlimited is staging cultural events alongside the Paralympic Games, having made major new commissions in disability, arts, culture and sport (for artist Rachel Gadsen’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, for example, see this previous post).

As far as the new website goes, Lilly Cook, one member of the reporting team, says the aim is for everyone with disabilities and learning disabilities “to be able to find out about them and all the other amazing things going on around them.” As Lilly adds in a recent blogpost: “Paralympic sports are just as exciting, professional and emotional as the Olympics.”

Alongside Lilly and Dean, the other reporters are Nicola Holley, Poppy Collie, Shalim Ali, and Laura Jarvis.

Expect some good coverage of Dean’s installation; the Dean Rodney Singers is an international digital collaboration of 72 musicians and dancers with and without disabilities from countries including Japan, China, South Africa, Germany, Brazil, Croatia and the UK. Their online interaction results in new music, dance and video and 23 of their pieces will be launched at the Southbank Centre today, with audience participation promised through interactive technology (the idea is viewers and listeners engage with the performers).

As well as the Dean Rodney Singers, other Heart n Soul artists perform in events during the Paralympics – the fabulous Lizzie Emeh at the Trafalgar Square Live Site this Sunday – fresh from accompanying Beverly Knight at the Paralympics opening ceremony – and The Fish Police (which Dean Rodney also fronts) at the Potters Field Live Site on Monday. The arts group’s spectacular multi-media club night The Beautiful Octopus Club (created by and for people with learning disabilities) is on Friday 7th September at Southbank Centre, the final weekend of Southbank’s Paralympic Games celebrations.

Keep up with the news on Twitter by following the Games Through Our Eyes team at @ourparagames

Face the facts, not the film fiction

It’s an uphill struggle for those with so-called invisible difficulties (people with conditions on the autistic spectrum, for example,) to achieve mainstream representation or indeed capture the attention of broadcasters, newspaper editors, politicians and the public.

So imagine the challenge for those with more visible differences.

If you see facial disfigurement in movies, its usually a handy hint just in case you have trouble figuring out the baddie (think Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddie Kreuger and just about every Bond villain). Trying to see if I could disprove this theory, I randomly remembered Liam Neeson in Darkman – scarred, with a grudge, ultimately fighting for justice – but then looked up the tagline” “hideously scarred and mentally unstable scientist seeks revenge against the crooks who made him like that”. Ouch.

Movie memo to kids (they might not know Freddie Kreuger but you can be sure they know Batman’s The Joker or Harry Potter’s Voldemort): look bad on the outside, and you’re bad inside.

Today, Changing Faces, the charity for people and families whose lives are affected by appearance-altering conditions, marks or scars, launches a nationwide film campaign. Please watch it, it’s powerful, elegantly produced and only a minute long.

You might already have spotted the charity’s poster campaign not so long ago which aimed to stop people in their tracks long enough to make them think (instead of simply staring). Today’s Face Equality on Film campaign, it is hoped, will go some way towards tackling the prejudice and crass assumptions experienced by people with facial disfigurement.

The campaign calls for balanced portrayals of people with disfigurements on screen and the film, which will be shown in 750 Odeon cinemas, invites audiences to challenge their assumptions about Leo Gormley, a man with burn scars. It also stars Downton Abbey actor Michelle Dockery.

As a teenager in the ’80s, my first foray into the mind-boggling world of skincare and “beauty” products involved a desperate desire to cover barely perceptible blemishes, inspired by the seemingly zit-free stars on my Smash Hits front cover. But since, then the concept of “beauty” has become even more extreme, and digital wizardry can clear imperfections in the blink of a heavily-made-up eye.

I’m conscious that my seven-year-old daughter, for example, is growing up in a media environment dominated by images of identikit, airbrushed, photoshopped lovelies projecting an unobtainable and flawless version of “looking good”.

In a world where older women are elbowed off the television news because their faces, rather than their news judgement, start to sag, what hope for those whose features even further removed from what is deemed be aesthetically pleasing? Changing Faces has already worked with Channel Five news to shatter such stereotypes.

But if women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities are under-represented in television, then people whose differences are more obvious are, ironically, even more invisible.

And if facial differences feature on television, they do so in a medical capacity, in documentaries that present abnormality as something to be gawped at or “put right”. While the concept behind The Undateables might have been well-intentioned, it was the title of the show that put me off.

As Changing Faces’ chief executive James Partridge said in response to that Channel 4 series: “TV series with derisory titles makes life just that bit more difficult – it’s so unnecessary and it’s unfair. Very good factual and sensitive documentaries on disfigurement-related topics are frequently spoiled by offensive titles such as ‘Freak show family’, ‘The man with tree trunks for legs’ and ‘Bodyshock’. They are contrived to attract audiences but actually label the human being in the film in a sensationalist and voyeuristic way, treating him or her as an object rather than a person.”

At the risk of getting sidetracked down this road, I remember gritting my teeth a few years ago to get past the utterly ludicrous title of The Strangest Village in Britain. It was, was in fact a sensitive portrayal of life at Camphill’s Botton village which featured much of the good support that has made a difference to my family’s life – not that you’d know that from the objectionable title.

Back to today’s campaign launch; a YouGov survey of 1,741 adults commissioned by the charity last month found that bad teeth, scars, burns and other conditions affecting the face are viewed as the most common indicators of an evil film character. According to the poll, ethnic minorities, bald and disabled people are all thought to be portrayed in more diverse ways than those with disfigurements.

Responding to the poll, 66% said people with bad teeth mainly play evil characters
and 48% said that people with conditions altering their appearance mainly play evil characters. Meanwhile, 30% said that bald people mainly play evil such roles compared to 13% who felt those from ethnic minorities mainly portrayed bad characters.
Interestingly, 6% said that people with physical disabilities (in a wheelchair or have missing limbs) mainly play evil characters.

Partridge adds of today’s campaign: “It would seem as if all the film industry has to do to depict evil and villainy is apply a scar or a prosthetic eye socket or remove a limb and every movie goer knows that it’s time to be suspicious, scared or repulsed…Freddie Krueger, Scarface and Two-Face are just some of the names that our clients get called at school, on the street and at work. They have to put up with people laughing at them, recoiling, running away or staring in disbelief that they can and do live a normal life.”

* You can sign the charity’s online petition demanding an end to the stigma reinforced on screen.

Writing about wrongs: can social affairs journalism make a difference?

Louis Tickle, freelance journalist
As a journalist writing on social affairs I often wonder if my articles make any difference or whether this kind of journalism is essentially exploitative. The dilemma isn’t original. Journalists and photographers struggle with it all the time. Mostly I ignore it. But it niggles.

So, I’m commissioned by a children’s charity to interview a single mum it’s been working with. She’s got five kids; black mould spreads thickly across her kitchen ceiling and down the back wall. One of her daughters, a little girl with asthma, sleeps in a pink bedroom so icily cold I feel my skin shrink when we look in. A single photograph of a baby lost to cot death is unobtrusively placed among the many pictures of her other children displayed in the front room.

There’s a housing association building site at the end of the terraced row, but this woman can’t get hold of the £400 she needs to secure one of the warm, dry family houses that will soon be available.

I write my piece feeling angry and hopeless. My fee is more than the money she needs for that deposit. I wrestle with the thought that I should give it to her. I don’t.

A year on, I still wonder if I should have done. This is hardly war reporting, but these are people living on a front line. They’re who I write about. And then I disappear off, my notebook full, my deadline pressing. I rarely see them again.

Does this kind of journalism change anything? I don’t know. It’s what I do, what I can do, what I have time to do. I know it’s not enough.

Though what’s playing out in the Leveson enquiry means that rotten practices are being dragged through the mire, the level of underlying suspicion about journalism saddens me, because it’s based on a misunderstanding of what any kind of serious journalism is about.

I don’t do this job because I want to stiff as many people as possible in the name of selling papers. I do it because stuff goes badly wrong in certain bits of public life, and in the small way that writing articles allows, I want to ask why – then persuade, cajole, flatter or embarrass people into giving me the answer.

The judgements I make in writing a piece may be taken fast, but they aren’t taken lightly. For instance…

I’m constantly examining the ethics of how I go about writing a piece. Particularly if an interviewee is vulnerable or not media savvy, I know that I can’t get across their tone of voice, or give every bit of background about their situation, so which quote I pick really matters.

I’ve written a fair bit about young single mothers. Asked why they got pregnant, why they chose to keep the baby, how they manage. And sometimes you’ll get a teenager replying along the lines of: ‘Some girls do get pregnant to get a council house, yeah, absolutely.’

What do I do with that? I know those words will make a strong headline. But if I use them rather than the less instantly “good value” comments, I don’t do this young mother’s entire situation justice. So I will think very, very hard about how to treat that kind of quote, and whether to include it at all.

Occasionally, I do stuff I know an editor wouldn’t like. National news organisations do not give interviewees the chance to see or approve copy before publication. There are practical reasons for this – deadlines, for example – but mostly, it’s about retaining editorial independence. Otherwise people ring up and say, “actually, I’d prefer it if you didn’t write about such-and-such a thing I told you about, it’ll make life really awkward.”

That, I’m afraid, is tough. If you don’t want me to write something, then don’t tell me, or alternatively, negotiate when you want to go off the record carefully and in advance.

But when a charity puts me in touch with someone struggling to rebuild their life, and they talk frankly about the hell they’ve been through, I’m aware a clumsily phrased comment about their situation could knock their confidence at best and make life even more difficult for them at worst. So sometimes I will read back quotes to an interviewee to make sure I have accurately reflected their views and they’re happy to go public with them.

On one occasion, I spent an afternoon with a young recovering drug addict who had spent four years on the game to fund her and her former boyfriend’s habit. She’d had her eldest daughter taken from her by social services: now pregnant again and with a new partner, she was on track to being allowed to keep her baby.

Given what she told me about the horrors of her previous lifestyle and job, I don’t know how she’d found the strength to kick her habit, but I was damned sure that nothing I wrote was going to set her back. The finished piece was written entirely in the first person; the risk of misrepresenting someone when you do this is real, no matter how good your intentions.

So I sent her the finished piece to look at. In this specific situation, editorial independence wasn’t going to trump her right to have her life described accurately and in a way that wasn’t going to put her recovery at risk.
Unlike many ‘important’ people who cavil at tiny bits of phrasing, this woman didn’t ask for a single change. And when my editor told me to go back and ask her a question – how much did she charge for each particular “service”? – (something I regard as the low point of my journalistic career) she didn’t get offended or slam the phone down. She told me. And, as I was finishing the call, she said thank you.

I loved doing that piece of work. The access and insight journalists get is central to why I am still entranced by this job.

But returning to my original question, does this kind of journalism change anything?

Well, that piece was published in The Times. A lot of people would have read it. The charity that supported her would have got some publicity.

What they really needed though was money to support more girls as they tried to get off the game. Maybe the piece helped them twist a few funders’ arms. Whatever it did, it’s nothing in comparison to the work done by dedicated experts at the coalface of disadvantage, poverty, suffering and violence.

When I try to answer the ‘does it make a difference’ question, I feel a bit like when you donate to charity online. Do you pick £2, £10, £25 or a bigger sum that means you won’t be able to buy that dress you had your eye on? Whatever you put is something, but it’s probably not as much as you could have given, and it’s certainly never enough.

Netbuddy: the special needs Mumsnet

Netbuddy's Emma Sterland and her brother, Ben (pic: Netbuddy)
When Emma Sterland’s older brother Ben, who has Down’s syndrome, was three, their mother saw another child with Down’s walking past their Surrey house. Back then, in the late 1950s, learning disabled people were hidden away in institutional care, and it was the first time June had seen another child like Ben; she ran into the street to shouting: “I’ve got a son like that!”

In the absence of today’s official support networks, a lasting friendship began between the two mothers.

June could have done with Netbuddy, the self-styled “special needs Mumsnet” managed by her daughter, Emma. Just 18 months old, it crowdsources tips, attracting 6,000 new visitors a month and reaching 4,000 people a month via Facebook. Continue reading the rest of my piece on the Guardian’s social care network.

Netbuddy founder Deborah Gundle and son, Zach (pic: Netbuddy)

What’s the role of the press in explaining social care?

If a week’s a long time in politics, it’s enough to induce amnesia in the fourth estate. The changing headlines over the last week – they began with the Dilnot Commission, moved onto phone hacking and returned to social care with the break up of Southern Cross care homes – prove that today’s news really is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. Find the rest of my post over on the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) blog.

Silver Surfers’ Day

It’s Silver Surfers’ Day and even if you don’t like the name of the annual event (for something so future-focused, it sounds dated), who can argue with its aim of promoting digital technology among older people?

Take 79-year-old David Le Clair, for example, who’s learning new computer skills which he hopes will help him to write a book about his life. David is a resident of James Hill House, an extra-care scheme run by housing association Octavia Housing in west London, and has just joined his social landlord’s free IT training project for older people.

David Le Clair in the digital techology room of his extra-care housing scheme

According to Digital Unite, the provider of digital skills in the community behind today’s annual event, around nine million people, many of whom are aged over 50, “continue to be excluded from large parts of daily life because they have no access to a computer and are not online”. Silver Surfers’ Day is the culmination of a week of events to encourage computer skills in the community, aiming to introduce older people to technology at a local level through libraries, community centres, schools and sheltered housing schemes, with taster sessions, for example. This year’s Silver Surfers’ Day coincides with Digital Day, part of Adult Learners Week.

At James Hill House, the digital course David is on is being taught using extra large screens and keyboards and shows older people how to use the internet, webcams and how to create Word documents. Funding from the government’s former Get Digital programme means residents now have their own camcorder, colour printer, TV and Wii games console too. The digital room is always open but residents can also use a laptop if they want to use the technology in their own flats.

The aim, says Octavia Housing, is to enable older people not only to use these technologies to connect with their family and friends, but to pursue their own projects of interest. For David, a former policeman, it is a chance to use the internet to reconnect with his past including his time in Nigeria where he lived for over 50 years. He’s hoping this will help him write his life story.

Vlado Veljanoski, James Hill House scheme manager, says the benefits go beyond simply sending emails or looking up things online: “Our residents now help to put together quiz nights and have developed interests in creating their own websites; two of them would like to showcase their paintings on the internet, others have interests in flowers and plants.”

Veljanoski and the James Hill House residents know that getting online brings more than simply social benefits but new research published yesterday suggests that the practical advantages are not exploited by older people. Research by the Payments Council, the body that sets the UK’s payments strategy, showed that, despite increasing numbers of over-55s getting online, not many take advantage of online or telephone banking. In a survey of 4,500 adults across the UK earlier this month, says the Payments Council, only 32% of over 55s use either telephone or internet banking, and only 24% of over 65s, compared with 60% of 16-24 year olds, 71% of 25-34 year olds, 69% of 35-44 year olds and 57% of 45-54 year olds.

While technology allows isolated or vulnerable people to access online social networks – to complement face to face interaction, not replace it – digitial inclusion is equally important for an ageing popultion from a more practical perspective, encouraging new, time-saving ways to manage daily chores, accessing public services or locating information online. Given that public sector and gassroots organisations are key to spreading the digital message in communities, how long before the digital drive is adversely affected by the spending cuts impacting on other local services and campaigns?

Whether silver surfers are just dipping a toe into the digital waters like David in west London, or are on the same tech-savvy wavelength as their younger counterparts (sorry – the title of today’s campaign makes obvious puns irresistable), the reasons to get online are brilliantly put by an older IT-fan from a previous blogpost, “When you get to your 90s you feel you want to keep up with things.. it makes you feel you’re up with the world.”

Art for autism’s sake

Tim, 17, had not uttered a word for five years when he arrived at Beechwood College. Two years into his time at the specialist residential college in Cardiff, Wales, the teenager with Asperger’s syndrome started speaking. Two years after that, at 21, he passed his GCSE Art and Design with a grade B, had a work placement at Tesco under his belt and has since left the college and got a job.

Beechwood, a further education college for students aged 16 and over with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), uses art and creativity programmes as the backbone of its personalised education programme. Students study music, 2D art, 3D art, digital media and horticulture and learn to articulate themseleves through these activities.

Batik Tiger created by a student at Beechwood College
Beechwood College student draws pebbles after visiting the beach in a project led by University of Glamorgan lecturers working at the college

Earlier this month, to mark World Autism Awareness Day, the college launched a national art competition to showcase the creativity of young people with autism and related conditions. The competition project, Create! Art for Autism, is open to those aged 11 to 25 who are formally diagnosed with an ASD, with the aim of showing that art can not only encourage learning and instill lifelong skills but, as Tim’s case shows, also boost quality of life and future prospects. Shortlisted entries to the Beechwood-led scheme will be exhibited in a national art tour, starting at The Old Library in Cardiff and moving to London galleries from the summer.

I know my sister has developed a newfound independence and confidence thanks to activities from painting to pottery, bakery, art and horticulture during her time with the Camphill movement. The Beechwood competition gets my vote not only because it encourages young people with special needs to find their own voice through creativity and practical action, but because it aims to bring the artistic talents of the learning disabled to a wider, more mainstream audience.

Darren Jackson, principal of Beechwood College, explains: “It’s my belief that creativity is essential to those with an autistic spectrum disorder on more than just a therapeutic or enjoyment level. We have seen how engaging in such programmes can transform young people who previously struggled to make themselves heard.”

Jackson says stop motion animation is a particularly effective way of encouraging confidence and self esteem: “The use of this creative multimedia tool has enabled many of our students to gain greater confidence and self esteem which, indirectly has resulted in them demonstrating a greater willingness to share their thoughts and ideas within their peer group. Many students who in the past have displayed high levels of anxiety are now willing to record voiceovers for their animated characters and use them as a vehicle for communication.”

Competition entries in categories including 2D, 3D and digital media art, can be submitted until June 10. The judging panel includes Brendan Stuart Burns, artist lecturer at The University of Glamorgan, Lucinda Bredin, editor at Bonhams Magazine, Hugh Morgan, chief executive of Autism Cymru and Beechwood’s Jackson. Finalists will be announced on June 24 and the awards ceremony will take place in Cardiff on July 24.