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Turtle Key Arts’ projects for autistic children and young people

Charlotte Cunningham is Artistic Director at Turtle Key Arts, a performing arts company whose objective is to enable participation in the arts for all. Charlotte describes three of the projects they run for autistic children and young people.

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Author: Charlotte Cunningham

Turtle Keys Arts' projects for autistic children and young people

Turtle Key Arts (TKA) is a performing arts company which has been working with autistic children and young people for over 15 years. We run a number of projects in various geographical areas and with different arts and academic partners – our long term aim is to roll out more projects across the country.  

Aims of our projects

  • provide well designed and accessible arts projects for autistic children and young people
  • allow these young people to experience high quality artistic experiences
  • provide appropriate autism training to all staff members, volunteers and students taking part in the project 
  • create a culture of best practice in the venues and the organisations that we work with
  • support participants in their transitions and in everyday life
  • roll out autism training in arts organisations
  • provide a bespoke creative service for our autism partners and new arts contacts for them.

Musical Portraits 

A partnership project with the National Portrait Gallery and Wigmore Hall Learning.  It is specifically designed for young autistic people aged 10-14.  This project encourages participants to engage with their existing artistic and musical interests, providing access to renowned paintings and high quality music making with professional musicians.  

It also provides an opportunity to make social connections with other young people with similar interests.  This allows the young people to gain skills in creativity, concentration and focus, social imagination and communication. Musical Portraits is a four-day summer course model for participants who haven’t taken part in the project before. It has been running since 2010, reaching over 80 young autistic people to date.

Turtle Opera 

Turtle Opera is a drama and music project for 10-14 year olds. The project is made up of a series of half-day Saturday workshops facilitated by experienced leaders. Participants are supported by a dedicated pastoral team and music/drama students from an higher education partner – for the past two years the project has been run with Oxford University Music Faculty. 

Participants benefit from the creative aspect of the project and the opportunity to experiment with friendships in a supported environment. The project culminates in a performance for invited guests. Turtle Opera uses the expertise of TKA to share best practice in working with young autistic people. Students gain invaluable practical experience of working on music projects with professional leaders as well as training and experience in working with this particular group.

Key Club

A monthly creative arts club for young autistic people aged 16-30 years old. This can be a particularly difficult and vulnerable time for autistic people. We provide continuity, social contact with peers and a creative project to inspire. The Key Club season runs for 10 months, each year is themed (e.g. performance art, radio, visual art) and ends in a showing of work created. Currently the project runs at the Lyric Hammersmith and at The Hub in High Wycombe. There is also a sister club called the Verve Club based at Opera North in Leeds. 

Sensory challenges

Sensory issues experienced by autistic people can lead to high levels of anxiety in unfamiliar environments.  They may also have difficulties in coping with something new, unexpected or change. Mainstream arts experiences can be difficult to access for them and our supported projects create a unique opportunity to overcome these barriers.

Expected outcomes for participants

  • reduced social isolation, 
  • improved communication skills  
  • increased confidence/self-esteem
  • enjoyment of the creative process
  • taking part in creative activities 
  • a sense of achievement through seeing the work that has been produced
  • validation of the creative work produced in the course of the projects.

Case study

John (not his real name) participated in Musical Portraits (four-day summer project).  He has a diagnosis of autism and separation anxiety and his parents were worried that John would not want to leave them and become distressed, which did happen initially on the first day.  However, on the second day (and every further occasion) John was happy to leave his parents.

As soon as the parents left, the pastoral lead and workshop leaders redirected his attention and helped him to settle in quickly. John was an active participant during the project: he completed all tasks, contributed to group discussions and talked to the other children.  He spent time with one child in particular: John had made a friend.

By the third day John told his parents: ‘I think I know what it is like to feel happy’.

Musical Portraits enabled John to:

  • leave his parents happily for the first time 
  • engage in group activities for the first time
  • make his first friend
  • decide to play an instrument.

Date added: 25 May2017