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‘It is you that has to change’ - the driving force behind Norfolk’s only play centre for children with autism

PUBLISHED: 16:16 22 November 2018 | UPDATED: 07:11 23 November 2018

Sunbeams Play is a special out of school centre for youngsters on the autism spectrum where they can meet, make friends and boost their social skills.
 Monica Bates, centre manager, is the driving force. Picture: James Bass

Sunbeams Play is a special out of school centre for youngsters on the autism spectrum where they can meet, make friends and boost their social skills. Monica Bates, centre manager, is the driving force. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2015

A centre for children and young people with autism is among those to receive a helping hand from the East of England Co-op’s Loneliness Fund.

Sunbeams Play has a range of family sessions at its Gapton Hall Road base Picture: suppliedSunbeams Play has a range of family sessions at its Gapton Hall Road base Picture: supplied

Liz Coates meets its manager Monica Bates to find out about how it all started and what more needs to be done.

When she took it on in September 2012, it was all hands to the deck, and hers were pretty much the main ones doing most of the work.

But a knack for sniffing out a bargain and strong-arming people into lending their skills or donating some old furniture meant things soon got moving.

Sunbeams Play is a special out of school centre for youngsters on the autism spectrum where they can meet, make friends and boost their social skills. 

Picture: James BassSunbeams Play is a special out of school centre for youngsters on the autism spectrum where they can meet, make friends and boost their social skills. Picture: James Bass

Donated paint in whatever colour was going was used to brighten the walls and every night was a late night.

“You could not work here if you weren’t committed and passionate,” she said. “I could not be here if I was not like that. Our phone is ringing all the time.”

She soon assembled a board of trustees and started off with just five children.

Today the centre costs between £135,000 and £150,000 a year to run, employs 12 staff, and has been rated by Ofsted as outstanding.

A lego club set up a Sunbeams Play in Great Yarmouth is hoping to help fathers and other male family members communicate better with children on the autistic spectrumA lego club set up a Sunbeams Play in Great Yarmouth is hoping to help fathers and other male family members communicate better with children on the autistic spectrum

Sunbeams Play on Gapton Hall Road is believed to be the only centre of its kind in the country.

With a unique focus on children and young people with autism it recognises the particular difficulties faced by those who find it hard to do normal things and helps them to overcome the common feeling of being isolated because of the day to day challenges of living with the condition.

The need in Great Yarmouth is “absolutely huge”, she says, but the services are not there.

On offer at Sunbeams are social sessions, after-school and holiday clubs, days out, and training - all aimed at giving children and their families the tools to cope with life.

Monica Bates, manager at Sunbeams Play in Great Yarmouth Picture: Liz CoatesMonica Bates, manager at Sunbeams Play in Great Yarmouth Picture: Liz Coates

MORE: Centre for children with autism in Yarmouth is building skills with Lego bricks

“Every child is an individual and we plan around each individual child,” she said.

“Each child we get to know personally. There is a misconception about autism, it is very individual.

“You cannot change the child, it is you that has got to change - the child will never change.

“Where Sunbeams works is because we accept who they are.

“Children always say when they come here ‘we can be ourselves, I can be me.’

“They are so used to being excluded they do try and push buttons but they are children and young people first and whatever they bring here we will try and deal with. It is them first, not the autism.

“When we first opened we had people from as far as Surrey getting in contact. I just feel for them.

“A lot of parents cannot go to a supermarket, on a bus, or in a car. Sometimes the children 
cannot stand crowds, noise or smells.

“We had one parent curled up in a ball, then she went to running in on a Monday evening with her make-up on and dashing off because in ten years she had never been shopping on her own.”

Unlocking pockets of funding and applying for grants is virtually a full-time job and at any one time there are often several bids on the go.

And she is grateful for the continued support of the Three Guineas Trust which believed in her from the start.

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A mother to three and grandmother to five Mrs Bates lives in Hemsby and has been married to Melvyn for some 45 years.

She first fell into childcare when her own children were young as a parent helper at playgroups

Over the years hers skills evolved and she became a registered childminder and worked as a one-to-one, going on to help set up the nursery at Great Yarmouth College and managing it for ten years.

Sunbeams Play runs a series of sessions including the Dad’s Lego Club which helps fathers to bond with their children over the plastic bricks, and also teaches them to be firm and set boundaries.

A satellite well-being centre has also been set up in Boundary Road where there is also a small training room.

Looking to the future she wants to create a service for the post 19 age group, helping them with CVs and cooking skills.

“We had one young man in a panic when he reached 19 because he did not know what to do,” she said. “Time and time again we are finding there is nothing for these young people.”

To find out more about Sunbeams Play visit the website.

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