Introducing a new feature reporting on people and organisations providing services for autistic people. In our inaugural article today we are featuring Sensory World Play Centre in Dewsbury.
Linda Holmes is a woman on a mission. Linda is the sole proprietor and manager of Sensory World Play Centre, a multi sensory play centre for children and young people with disabilities. Located in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in England, Sensory World offers a rare haven for children and carers, free from the noise, crowds and judging eyes so commonly found in most ‘mainstream’ entertainment venues.
“I wanted to provide somewhere safe and calm for children to play,” says Linda. While the centre is open to children and young people of all abilities, she designed the facilities to be particularly suitable for people with autism, ADHD and for wheelchair users. “It’s completely secure,” she continues. “Parents and carers don’t have to follow their children around, worrying that they’ll get into difficulties, escape or become distressed in a crowd. I take private bookings so the children can have the place to themselves and make as much noise as they want or relax in their own space. As soon as people walk in they say they can tell it’s a calming environment.” I nod, recalling the times I’ve spent at soft play centres dealing with my son’s reactions to the crowds, to having to share, to waiting his turn and to other children’s noise, and their reactions in turn to his noise and his often failed attempts to socialise.
Linda’s own adult son, Ryan, has Asperger Syndrome and she knows only too well the challenges faced by families with autistic children. “I had to struggle,” she recalls. “There was nothing. No information, no services. I want people to be able to find the services that are out there. I have people coming all the way from Manchester. They’ve had to search for play facilities on the internet because there’s no information being given out to families. They don’t know about the Family Fund, they don’t know how to claim benefits, there’s no counselling. There’s no communication between local area authorities. Leeds council doesn’t list services in Kirklees and vice versa. Parents are under incredible stress. They come here, their children can play and the parents can talk to me because I understand. I’ve lived it. A lot of people come here to talk to me and to get support from each other.”
Over the three years of its existence, Sensory World has rapidly become an unofficial community centre, with charities and support groups using the venue to meet regularly. A local autism support group, The Whole Autism Family, meets weekly to socialise, run Lego Therapy sessions and music therapy sessions, with monthly guests providing professional advice and support. The local Hutchinson Deafblind Trust group meets weekly. PCAN (Parents of Children with Additional Needs) meets on the second Monday of the month. A support group for adults with Aspergers, autism and ADHD (ASHARKS) meets on Thursdays, running a number of social activities and providing advice. Linda is hosting a twelve week course on financial planning and money management for adults lacking those skills. Last week she held a karaoke and social evening for over 18’s and she is in the process of setting up a social group for home-schooled children. A recent report by the BBC revealed that the number of children being home-schooled has risen by approximately 40% in the last three years (source: BBC). In 2016 there were 1735 children with an EHCP or statement of special educational needs being educated at home, approximately 5% of all home educated children. (Source: Home Education and Special Needs England.) The centre would provide a useful opportunity for home-schooled children with special needs to socialise and maybe even share lessons together.
Aside from hosting the support groups, Linda runs a Facebook group, Sensory Chat, for the centre’s users and other sensory service providers to provide mutual advice and support to each other online. Linda takes great joy from working with the families and she knows what children like; before opening the centre she was a childminder, along with her husband, for over twenty years. “I have a lifetime of experience working with children and with autism”, she says. “The carers and parents that come here know I understand their needs and the sort of activities their children will enjoy.”
It’s evident as soon as I enter the cafe, from the fiddle board of locks, wheels and light switches, to the chalkboard wall for small artists to create their masterpieces in the cafe, to the waterbed room with the heated, vibrating bed and soothing bubble tubes, to the ball pit, the hammock, the Lego wall, the mirror and bubble tube area, the fibre optic strands, the disco ball and the interactive musical play mat. Everywhere there are things to touch, to manipulate, to lie in or climb on, or simply relax and watch. Sensory World lives up to its name.
As well as the privately booked individual play sessions the centre also offers children’s events including a picnic tea with Paw Patrol and dinner with Santa, hosts birthday parties and provides a drop-in café offering snacks and hot meals. Linda’s in the process of trying to organise a music event for the summer but is finding it difficult to attract interest or co-operation from other local businesses, support groups and even the local authority. “I can’t get help with publicity because I’m not a charity. The council won’t even put me on their list of local services. Yet there’s no central information point for parents to find out what’s available or what events are on.”
Her biggest challenge is breaking down the barriers between individual local groups and between local authorities so that information can be shared and groups can work together to provide a better service to families in need. “People need to know what funding is available, what support they can receive, the facilities out there, what events are on. Everyone’s doing their bit but nobody’s working together. I could get more help publicising the centre if I adopted charitable status but what happens to my business and the money I’ve personally invested? I want to leave a legacy for my son.” Indeed, Linda’s motivation for opening the centre was to provide her son with a job after he left school. According to the UK’s National Autistic Society only 16% of autistic adults are in full time employment and only 32% are in any kind of paid work. (Source: NAS October 2016). Ryan has secured a full time job elsewhere but Linda’s dream of providing him with some form of financial security for the future persists, alongside her mission to provide better opportunities for children with autism.
“It my passion,” says Linda. And so she continues expanding her services to the charities and community groups in the area, working to create a central information and resource point for families living with special needs.
For further information on Sensory World Play Centre or to book a private play session visit the centre’s website, Facebook page or contact Linda Holmes on Twitter (@likeholme), or by telephone on 01924 456152 and 07801 065589.
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Disclaimer: no money, services or other incentives were given for the publishing of this interview.