New centre teaching autistic people independence is a lifeline, says charity at official opening
A pioneering autism centre which opened yesterday aims to make a fundamental difference to services in Northern Ireland.
The Carryduff facility, which was five years in the making, was officially opened by the National Autistic Society Northern Ireland.
The charity's ambassador Christine McGuinness led a plaque unveiling surrounded by children, adults and their families.
The purpose-built centre aims to provide evening and weekend clubs, as well as services for autistic children and adults, with a particular focus being on day provision for adults with complex needs and who require high levels of support.
The centre, construction work on which started last year, features a state-of-the-art sensory suite, a 3D immersive suite that allows users to interact with projections on the walls, a gym and a fully-fitted kitchen for individuals to develop life-skills and become more independent.
The charity raised more than £216,000 to kit out the centre, with £60,000 collected through local community fundraising by families.
The day provision will be overseen by around 23 full-time staff.
Shirelle Stewart, whose 16-year-old son Callum is diagnosed as autistic, has been director of the National Autistic Society Northern Ireland for more than five years.
She said she was delighted the centre had opened.
"We feel absolutely ecstatic at just arriving at this point," Mrs Stewart added.
"It has been a bit of a journey. These kinds of things take a bit to plan. I am delighted we are at our official opening.
"The project has taken about four to five years. Whenever we started, as you can imagine... it goes through the process.
"At the core, we really wanted to coordinate and consult with autistic adults, their carers and their families.
"At the moment, they really struggle to find appropriate services.
"The centre has been designed in order to meet these needs. It is a multifaceted facility.
"We have a gym for health and wellbeing, which we think are really important for our autistic young people and adults.
"We also have a training kitchen, because we want to develop life skills in children and adults, and a lovely garden space."
With more than 18,000 children in Northern Ireland diagnosed with autism, alongside a large number of adults - many not yet diagnosed - the charity hopes the centre will make a big difference to being able to provide one-to-one provision.
Explaining the difference the centre will make to families, Ms Stewart emphasised that new "high-quality provision services are needed across Northern Ireland".
She added: "I have a 16-year-old son with autism. As he has got bigger, his world has shrunk and he has become more isolated and we as a family have become more isolated.
"It is a real lifeline that they have this lovely building and that everything is in there to meet their needs. The care given is tailored to meet their needs.
"Why should young people with autism and complex needs not have a high-quality environment? They need to have the opportunity to continue to learn and develop.
"Developing skills is extremely important. If you are a neuro-typical person, you automatically learn those skills. For autistic people, we have to teach those skills.
"Life skills, that was one of the things they told us they really needed more than anything. Learning to cook, manage your own money... all of those skills are fundamental."