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Community & Co-Creation at AutismAble

At AutismAble, we prioritise the empowerment of and involvement of all our beneficiaries.

This page:

* Provides case studies of our work that exemplify how we develop our local community and ensure we are community led

* Demonstrates the practical steps we take throughout our projects to ensure that we demonstrate the best co-creation and inclusion practices we can.

* Looks at how we are continuously improving our co-creation in order to include the most isolated and/or hard-to-reach people we can work with.

1. Case studies of our approach to Community & Co-Creation:

Our work is shaped by the people who use our service,  the staff who work at Autism Able and our local community. We believe in bringing our local community together for creativity, change and community enterprise.

Our projects are centred around our speciality as an organisation working with neurodiverse people, but we engage and partner with a plethora of organisations in our local area to create a range of positive outcomes for the people we work with. This approach helps us develop community whilst breaking down the barriers that keep neurodiverse people isolated.

We have created projects that partner with and are steered by the needs of our local community since our founding in 2015, and we aim to be ambitious with what we can achieve: what starts as an informal kick-about can become a league topping football team, what starts as guitar playing in a bedroom can become a larger full band composition alongside an award-winning composer.

Some examples of our work that epitomise our ethos and that show the breadth of work we do in creativity, enterprise and health and wellbeing:

1. The Sea Change Cafe – in April 2019 we took over an abandoned unit in South Shields’ high street and turned it into a community enterprise. 

Sea Change Cafe is staffed by young neurodiverse people who work alongside neurotypical staff and volunteers from the local community. 

The cafe is supervised by a board and a steering group made up of staff members, local volunteers and AutismAble staff. We take bookings and run events on behalf of our local community while taking strategic direction from people who live in the community Sea Change serves.

Sea Change is a new model of enterprise based in and serving the deprived South Tyneside wards of Beacon and Bents and Westoe, the only offer of its kind to young neurodiverse people in the local area. As our work there is pioneering, we use our links into the local community and council to demonstrate what we see are best practice for helping young neurodiverse people into independent employment and independent life skills.

2. Future Collaborations and our music offer

In 2022 Autism Able partnered with Youth Music to create our most ambitious programme of music learning and creating to date. A city wide initiative, the Future Collaborations programme is delivered across South Tyneside, North Tyneside and Sunderland with a range of partners in schools and education, local music venues and community organisations.

Our music programmes have brought together groups in our local community such as Kayaks (Kids and Young Adults Klub), Compact For Race Equality and cultural hubs like Sunderland’s Pop Recs and Customs House.  Future Collaborations reached out into the professional musical expertise of our broader local community – our young people engaged with talented local artists, award winning composers and producers. We have created an ongoing opportunity for music professionals to share their skills and learn from and alongside our young beneficiaries.

Future Collaborations, more so than our previous programmes, was built on an ethos of integrating groups of neurodiverse and non-neurodiverse young people. The programme involves young people and their families in shaping its outcomes and delivery to meet their hopes and expectations – each music session’s content is decided upon by those involved, the overall programme of learning adjusted several times over a year in order to accomplish new genres of music and the programme is shaped by a monthly steering group meeting with its participants.

Future Collaborations’ user-involvement and community involvement helped bring our young people’s talents into their local community, it led to them giving performances at local venues, recording in local studios and meeting new friends and fans. Our partnering with cultural hubs and professionals helped us to produce high-quality work that transforms our local cultural landscape. We have been able to provide significantly more opportunity for young people marginalised by disability.

In 2023 the quality of our work was recognised when we won Youth Music’s Outstanding Project award – in recognition of Autism Able “pushing boundaries to promote inclusive music making, so that every young person has the chance to change their life through music”.

The Future Collaborations programme represented the diversity of our local community reaching 31%  more than our target of participants being BAME.

Future plans for co-creation involve booking and producing a music festival that will accompany the programme, this will help build our links nationally and help us to share learning around co-creating ambitious art programmes with neurodiverse and learning disabled young people.

 3. Hebburn Town AutismAble FC:

Responding to requests from our young beneficiaries and their families for more sport and health related projects, we again sought others working in our local area to allow us to provide something that was high-quality and ambitious. To do so, we built a partnership with our local Northern Premier League team Hebburn Town.

Founded in 2018, Hebburn Town AutismAble FC is disability-friendly football club that provides FA-accredited coaching to people aged 16 and over with a diagnosis of autism, a learning disability or an associated condition.

It is affiliated to the Durham Football Association and plays in the North East Inclusion League and the North East Ability Counts League.  Alongside sponsorship from the Football Foundation, we have found supporters in local businesses like Brighams and Cowan Social Club and the Cleadon Rotary Club.

4.New Development of creative facilities in South Tyneside

We have worked with our local community to influence decisions about its future and to improve and develop infrastructure.
In late 2023, we won a Youth Investment Fund grant to revolutionise the work we do in Fowler Street in South Tyneside. In 2024 we will build a state-of-the-art training café, ICT suite, woodwork facility, media and film studios and offices there to transform the lives of young people in our local community. The facility will be located in Beacon and Bents, a ward that scores among the lowest in the country in Indices Of Multiple Deprivation.

Our Autism Able Young Person’s Steering group played a pivotal role in the planned development and renovations. The group collaborated with architects, providing valuable input on what they wanted the building to become and expressing what aspects were important to them. This hands-on involvement reflects our commitment to ensuring that the decisions affecting our community are made collectively, creating ownership and inclusivity in every aspect of our growth and development.

This work, alongside our Future Collaborations programme, will help us to further engage the diverse communities of South and North Tyneside and Sunderland, and allow us to create better outcomes for the people living in our areas of work. Lexie O’Connor is lead steering member for learner voice groups. The committee for our Youth group includes 6 young people aged under 19. All groups hold learner voice sessions every month and feedback and requests are fed into the committees.

5. Our ongoing influence on local policy and our local community’s capacity

We harness the expertise that comes from the lived-experience of those we work with to inform local policy and to build the capacity of organisations in our local area. Our goal in this work will be to help our young beneficiaries to have more power and influence in their local area, and also to boost the skills and capabilities of our local economy.

Recent examples of this work include:

  • Contributing an AutismAble Designated Staff Member, to attend and contribute to all South Tyneside’s Employment (Autism and Learning Disabilities) Steering Group meetings.
  • Collaborating with South Tyneside Council to lead on an Outstanding Teaching and Learning Project to better improve employment opportunities for people with Autism. This project used a series of digital approaches and also included Peer Learning, with our series of ‘You’ve Got This’ videos exploring local workplaces.
  • Contributing an AutismAble Designated Board Member to all South Tyneside Sub-Group for Learning Disabilities Employment meetings.

2. Practical Pillars of Co-Creation at Autism Able:

We design our services alongside our beneficiaries using a number of practical co-creation practices. The examples below demonstrate how we do this both at the strategic level and in the day to day delivery of a project.

Theory of Change Workshops

Every four years, AutismAble conducts Theory of Change workshops with our young people and their families, using a methodology that ensures our beneficiaries’ voice is heard, whatever their particular needs.

Read our latest Theory Of Change here  

These workshops are pivotal to our strategic planning. They ensure that we know what it is that our beneficiaries need and enjoy in our work, they help us map out the long-term goals with them, and the necessary steps to achieve them. 

During these sessions, participants – including service users, staff, and stakeholders – collaboratively identify the desired outcomes of our services and brainstorm the best approaches to reach these goals. It’s a process that acknowledges the dynamic nature of our work and adapts to evolving needs.

Regular Learner Voice Meetings

Our commitment to co-creation is also evident in our Monthly learner voice meetings. These meetings are forums where participants in our programmes can share their feedback, suggest improvements, and voice their concerns. 

Our Member Voice Representative actively collects this feedback during these meetings and takes it back to our board members. This helps translate their insights into actionable steps to enhance the quality of service, ensuring it remains relevant and effective

Learner’s voice influenced the creation of our award winning Future Collaborations project. We spent a significant amount of time talking to young people in our learner voice sessions. They told us about the barriers to learning they had experienced in the past and recommended some conditions that would make attendance at a music course more appealing.

Once the course was up and running we held weekly learner voice sessions so we could make continuous improvements. On the back of learner voice feedback, we adapted venues to make them more accessible, moved sessions from an unsuitable venue,  tutors explored new musical genres at the request of learners, and we put on additional workshops such as urban beat making after feedback from the learner steering group.

Young Persons Steering Group

The Young Persons Steering Group is a testament to our belief in the leadership potential of our members. Led by a lead member, this group plays a crucial role in representing the collective voice of our younger participants. They bring suggestions and insights from the group directly into management meetings and to our governing board, ensuring that the voices of our younger members are heard at the highest levels.

We ensure the decisions they make are meaningful and impactful. For example, our Young Person’s Steering Group was involved in our bid for Youth Investment Fund funding for our new creative facility in Fowler Street – they worked with our bid writing staff to shape the bid we wrote they met with architects, designers and contractors to shape the expected outcomes of the work to their needs and expectations.

Neurodivergent Representation on Our Governing Board

50% of our governing board identify as neurodiverse. Inclusion is at the heart of our governance. By having neurodivergent members on our governing board, we ensure that the strategic direction of AutismAble is guided by the perspectives and experiences of those we serve. This representation is crucial for promoting a culture of understanding and respect for neurodiversity at every level of AutismAble.

3. Innovation and co-creation at AutismAble

AutismAble continue to innovate in our approach to co-creation, in order to create a platform that is accessible to people with more profound needs, or who are especially isolated within our local community and among our beneficiaries. In 2024 we will expand the horizon of co-creation with a series of digital platforms, and further embed our work with involvement in our local community. We also want to ensure that people with lived experience of learning disability and neurodivergence lead on our engagement and outreach of the most isolated people we work with.

This will take the following forms:

  • Digital Co-creation Platforms: We are currently working on a new website and online platform where we will leverage technology to create a new interactive forum, where service users can continuously contribute ideas and feedback.
  • Community Workshops and Forums: We plan to host more frequent community events where service users, their families, and professionals can collaborate and co-design services.
  • Peer-Led Initiatives: We are  encouraging service users to lead and manage outreach projects, promoting ownership and empowerment.

Co-creation at AutismAble  values and respects the voice of every individual in our community. It’s about building services that don’t just work for our community but are a product of their collective vision and creativity.

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