By swimming 36 lengths of Heeley swimming pool, 10-year-old Tate Evans raised more than £640 for the Acctivate children’s club.
“I’m a good swimmer, but I’d never swum half a mile before and I thought it would be good to challenge myself,” he said. “When I finished I felt really, really happy, but I was really tired so I just wanted to go home and lie on my bed.”
Every Saturday morning, the club offers games and activities to children who have Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism (along with any parents and siblings who want to join in too).
Support from a team of staff and volunteers means that the children can play and socialise with each other without having to worry about the confusing attitudes of ‘neurotypical’ contemporaries.
“If you come in and look round, you’d just think this was a group of kids having fun,” said Acctivate parent Neil Cleverly, who took his own charity challenge for the club last year, a skateboarding distance event where he beat his own record by nose-wheelieing past five car parking spaces.
The club is run by the local charity Asperger’s Children and Carers Together (ACCT), a support group for children and families affected by Asperger’s syndrome and high functioning Autism. ACCT runs activity groups and outings, and was set up by three parents in 2006, Deborah Woodhouse, Karen Nuttgens and Helen Basu-Chaudhuri.
“We’ve all got children on the autistic spectrum, and found there was nothing that would support us in Sheffield,” said Deborah.
ACCT won a South Yorkshire Community Foundation grant to set up a club at St Mary’s Community Centre in Bramall Lane, and a tender for government funding to supply ‘short break’ services for Sheffield families.
The Acctivate club became weekly due to demand – 40 children aged up to 12 attend on Saturday mornings – and the fortnightly teenagers’ club on Wednesday evenings has now turned weekly too. There’s an open day for parents and young people interested in the teenage club this Saturday (November 8) from 1pm to 3pm at St Mary’s.
“The clubs are parent-led because we think we are the best people to understand what our children need,” said Deborah.
ACCT project coordinator Nicola Hough has a teenage daughter with Asperger’s.
“I have a passion for autism because of my personal experiences,” she said. “There are some very positive sides of the condition, children here have a very good sense of humour and are easy to get along with if you respect their differences.”
Compared to mainstream youngsters, teenagers on the autistic spectrum are very honest and disinterested in vying for social position.
They can become anxious in public very easily however, so one part of ACCT’s work is to organise trips out in a way that reduces this risk – regular visits to the Showroom cinema, for example, when the lights are kept on and children are free to get up and down from their seats and visit a ‘break out’ room if they wish.
“There are no visual clues to autism, so members of the public will often frown upon a child’s behaviour and just think they’re being naughty, but it’s often led by anxiety,” said Nicola.
ACCT parents, members and families have a regular stream of sponsored runs, swims, rock concerts (and nose-wheelie challenges) to raise money for supported trips, and local companies like Gripple have also chipped in to support outings for the 320 families who are ACCT members.
Tate Evans’ mum, Zoe Hepworth, tried an experiment to learn about her son’s challenges – 70 per cent of typical communication in the ‘neurotypical’ world is non-verbal, she said.
“I turned the sound off from a soap opera with Tate and his younger brother, Gil, and tried to decide who was feeling what. Gil and I could get every nuance of every eyebrow raised and everything, but Tate didn’t have a clue.
“The club has been really positive in helping him gain confidence. It accepts everybody as who they are, and Tate has realised there are lots of other people out there who have a similar experience of the world to him.”
www.acctsheffield.org.uk; tel 2230242 To donate via Tate Evans’s swim page: www.justgiving.com/tateevans/