Newcastle in Co Down has been named as Northern Ireland’s first ‘autism-friendly’ town.
The seaside town is to receive a boost to both equality provision and tourism as a result.
Newcastle already has good support for people with the condition and plans are now being put in place to build NI’s first autism-specific holiday home.
Research by Autism Initiative NI – the charity behind these developments – found that parents and families across the UK and the Republic of Ireland have said they would love to visit an autism-friendly resort, meaning a potentially huge boost for the local economy, as well as better provision for people across Northern Ireland.
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.
Local representative on Newry and Mourne Council are thrilled with the plans, while the town is also set for a visit from 15 Autism Ambassadors from Towards Independent Living and Learning (TILL), an organisation from Boston, Massachusetts, as part of an Internal exchange programme with Autism Initiatives that has visited different places around the globe – including London, as well as Finland and China.
Grainne Close, the Northern Ireland National Director for Autism Initiatives – which works across all of the UK and Ireland – said: “We are delighted that the Newry & Mourne Council has offered their support for Autism Initiatives’ proposal to designate Newcastle as the first ‘Autism Friendly’ town in Northern Ireland. We look forward to working in partnership with the Council, the Chamber of Commerce and other organisations and businesses in the local area.
“Autism Initiatives has a long history of supporting adults with Autism in Northern Ireland. We are well established in Newcastle, Co Down , currently employing over 90 staff and supporting over 60 service users with a range of Autism-specific services that meet their individualised needs.
“It is also vital to stress that this is not a zero-sum game, it is about inclusivity. These developments will be autism friendly, not autism only, and be of benefit to everyone in the local area or who comes to visit – for example, as part of our plans we hope to be able to build a sensory garden in the town and this would be an amazing experience for anyone who goes there.”
Newcastle is already a thriving hub for autism provision. Autism Initiatives NI employs a total of 260 people – and 90 of these are already based in the town, providing services that include employment support, five supported-living centres, with 24/7 assistance for 27 service users, a day service unit supporting 25 service users; and annual activities, such as fairs and other events and fundraisers.
Ms Close is also keen to praise the local business community – many of whom employ people with autism – for already showing great consideration and understanding of the condition, and adding that branding it as an Autism-Friendly Town “would simply be making things official”.
She added: “To many of our adult service users with Autism, Newcastle is home. The community here is very accepting and understanding of the needs of people we support. Many of the local businesses offer employment to our service users and have adapted their premises to ensure accessibility for all.
“By promoting Newcastle as Northern Ireland’s first ‘Autism Friendly’ town, we are sending out a clear message that Newcastle is a welcoming holiday destination for children, adults and their families on the Autism spectrum.
“We are excited about the endless possibilities and epic experiences that could be provided in the future for people with autism in Newcastle. We are currently considering a number of further initiatives that could enhance the quality of lives of people with autism and their families and hope to unveil these plans in the very near future.”
The proposals were on the agenda at a recent council meeting and received cross-party support.
Mournes DUP councillor Harry Harvey – a member of the council’s Enterprise, Regeneraton and Tourism Committee – has offered full support.
He said: “We had an item on the agenda to support Autism in our district, namely Newcastle, as a popular seaside destination, it is ideally suited to be adaptable to the needs of those with Autism. I was privileged to be able to propose the recommendations be accepted.
“This was quickly seconded and each political party represented spoke of their support and enthusiasm. My main point being, we are not only helping those that are suffering, but we are in turn making life better and maybe a bit more comfortable for their carers & their families.”
Mournes Sinn Féin Councillor Willie Clarke added: “An autism-friendly town is a place autistic people and their families can call home. It is a place where they feel welcomed, valued and cared for. Where businesses and amenities adapt so that their services can be enjoyed by those on the spectrum, and autistic people and their families are cared for in a sensitive non-judgemental way.
“Autism Initiatives, currently has a number of supported living accommodation units in Newcastle, the town has superb natural assets that create a sense of wellbeing, a number of quiet areas which includes our Forests, Beaches, Murlough nature reserve, Bloody bridge, green space in Islands Park, Castle Park and Donard Park and the Mourne Mountains.
“Council facilities will need to review how services are provided for citizens with Autism, which include reduced noise, avoiding long queues, there will be an opportunity to provide sessions in our leisure centres, or a special session in the evening in the Tropicana and Rock Pool for children and families with Autism.
“I look forward to working alongside Council Officers, the voluntary and community sector, and the private sector in the Newcastle area to promote and develop the concept to have Newcastle awarded the status as the first Autism Friendly town in N Ireland.
“It is important that equality is at the heart of our Council and that individuals with autism and their families can participate fully with society and achieve a more independent life. Autism now needs to be properly understood by all if we are to be truly accepting of our diverse society and culture.
“I am very supportive of the other initiative being considered by Autism Initiatives, they are currently consulting on the potential development of an exclusive Autism-Specific holiday home in Newcastle which could provide employment for 20 people. This facility would be a welcome addition to the hospitality sector in Newcastle, where families with Autism can enjoy their holiday in a safe welcoming location.”