An 11-year-old girl with autism has raised hundreds of pounds to help young people with the condition learn to swim.
Charlotte Smith, from Larne, Co Antrim, started the charity drive with a hair cut a year ago before going on to raise more than £500.
The money will ensure people with autism can get swimming lessons in a private in a calm environment which will help them relax and enjoy the experience.
Charlotte said she enjoys swimming so much she was “determined to help others to take the plunge”.
Grainne Close, national director of Autism Initiatives NI, said a desire for learning to swim among people with autism had been recognised but had to be dealt with carefully.
She said that “in a world of noise that often overwhelms them, autistic children tend to be drawn to water for its relaxing sensory qualities and while this can be extremely calming and beneficial, it can put those who cannot swim at risk”.
Ms Close added: “Back in 2015, we conducted a ‘Needs & Wants’ survey with over 229 service users and their families. Swimming lessons were highlighted as the most wanted activity. It has taken us almost two years to find the right partner who we feel understands the needs of people with Autism.
“Most of the families we support could not afford the full cost of £16 per half hour for swimming lessons. As a charity we wanted to make the swimming lessons more affordable and accessible. By fundraising we can reduce the cost by 50% and instead of the £16 per half hour in partnership we can offer the lessons for £8 per half hour.
“We’re delighted that Charlotte has kick started our fundraising efforts by raising over £500 for the swimming lessons.”
Thanks to Charlotte’s efforts a partnership has been created with Belfast-based Swimming Buddies to offer lessons to children on the autism spectrum.
Charlotte, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome said she worked with Autism Initiatives NI “because they were the ones who taught me how to ride my bike last summer”.
She added: “I am very grateful because it was a whole new experience for me and I never thought I would be able to ride a bike like my friends did. I am so glad that Autism Initiatives NI will be launching the swimming programme with the money I raised because it makes me feel very proud of myself and because I love swimming and it has helped me conquer my fears. Now I can even jump into the deep end, even though I was really frightened at the start.”
The charity says autism is a growing issue in Northern Ireland – as it is in the rest of the UK and Ireland – with record number of young children identified as having the condition.
For more information go to www.autisminitiatives.org.