Acorns project to provide a safe haven for children with autism

Helena Kearns and son Finlay hold up the plans for the Acorns for Autism project in Armagh. INPT15-013
Helena Kearns and son Finlay hold up the plans for the Acorns for Autism project in Armagh. INPT15-013

Simple, everyday pleasures like going to the park or the cinema can be a nightmare for families with autistic children.

But a new, specially designed outdoor space, spearheaded by a group of parents, is set to open in Armagh to provide such families with a safe haven.

Chairperson of Acorns for Autism, the group set up to develop the project, is Lurgan woman Helena Kearns whose autistic son Finlay (12) is ultra-sensitive to noise, light, movement and touch.

The group’s parents come from across the southern trust area with committee members including Joanne Creaney, Craigavon, Lorinda Sharkey, Dungannon, and John Lappin, Tandragee.

The project is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, having been designed specifically for people with autism.

And just last week, on World Autism Day, plans for the centre were given a huge boost when Lagan Building offered to make a substantial contribution towards the cost.

Helena said, “We just can’t believe it. We were prepared for at least three years of rattling buckets and fundraising so Lagan Building are like our guardian angel.”

The outdoor space will be situated on a one-acre site beside the Acorns autism centre, a dedicated centre for autism assessment and diagnosis, and will include a pavilion, sensory garden, playground and barbecue and events area.

Explained Helena, “The idea is that when families attend the Acorns for treatment, they will have somewhere relaxing to wait.

“This will be a place where families can go with their autistic children, an environment of understanding and acceptance where there will be nobody tutting or looking on with disapproval.”

Helena, who has three other children, Taylor (19), Keisha (10) and Brogan (8), said, “Autism is very hard on siblings too. If Finlay can’t go somewhere, his siblings can’t either so it has a huge impact on family life.”

The site has been designed by architect and Queen’s University lecturer Keith McAllister, who has a special interest in autism, and one of his final year students Benjamin Daniels.

Said Helena, “People with autism feel more comfortable with curves, and the site has been designed as an autism specific environment, with no sharp angles.”

Even the play equipment has been approved by occupational therapists. Said Helena, “There are small trampolines with no real bounce because a lot of children are sensitive to movement.

“Likewise, a lot of autistic children don’t like swings but they like to hang so there will be trapeze swings instead.”

She added, “The good thing is that it’s our project and we can develop it as we need to. We would like to have log cabins where young people can chill out and maybe an outdoor cinema, so fundraising will continue.

“We also want community groups to visit so we can promote awareness of autism.”