New Belfast autism centre for children a 'dream come true'
NORTHERN Ireland's first dedicated resource centre for children with autism has opened its doors in east Belfast.
Helping Hands on Millars Lane in Ballybeen will offer services for children with the condition as well as support for families from all over the country.
The £425,000 centre offers sensory and games rooms, cooking facilities and counselling sessions.
Children are free to draw on special walls that wipe clean as well as learn coping skills with a simulator that can create stressful scenarios like going shopping and travelling.
The centre, which took nine years to come to fruition, was "a dream come true" for mother of three and chairperson Caroline Birch, whose daughter Katie was diagnosed with autism in 2008.
She, along with other parents, recognised the need for services to allow children with the condition to interact with others, something that autistic children can struggle with.
She said: "Having a child with autism is very stressful, for them and for the family.
"When Katie was diagnosed back then, there was no waiting list and there were no facilities for the kids.
"We tried hiring rooms in different places but they were shared and we did not have our own space, which is something autistic children need.
"We are a group of parents who have formed a committee and tried to push forward to open a centre like this.
"We applied for funding - then one day the call came telling me we had hit the jackpot and we got the money. I couldn't believe it.
"It's been a long and stressful journey and I can't believe we are finally here - it's definitely a dream come true for us."
The Helping Hands centre is staffed by 24 qualified volunteers but Ms Birch said that more are sought to assist the 130 families who will use it each week and to accommodate the 73 families still on the waiting list.
Bangor Grammar pupil Adam Rushe (16) said the centre offers him a chance to make friends and socialise in a safe environment.
"This centre is going to change my life," he said.