Washington teachers and artists from across Sunderland have spent a day learning how to engage with young people with autism or profound or complex disabilities through theatre or performance.

The workshop was led by Tim Webb, the charismatic and inspirational director who launched Oily Cart, a theatre group created to work with children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, young people on the autism spectrum and young people who are deaf or blind.

Tim retired from Oily Cart last year and is now working as a freelance consultant, sharing his ideas and practices with teachers and artists across the country.

Sunderland Culture organised Tim’s workshop as part of its Uncover programme which is working with schools and families in Washington to increase cultural engagement. The Uncover project has been funded through National Lottery funding from the Great Place Scheme, a joint fund from Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund to put arts, culture and heritage at the heart of communities.

Tim said: “Over the years we’ve developed various different ways to engage with young audiences on the autism spectrum or who have profound or multiple disabilities. One especially effective way is to use a multi-sensory approach to engagement and that’s what we’ve been doing with these teachers and artists.

“We’ve also worked on how every child is different and where possible, a customized approach is needed dependent on their disabilities.”

Oily Cart was originally working with children under fives, but Tim and his team were asked to develop a show to work in a special school.

“I found it intriguing and challenging to find ways to reach these young people and the company just went from there really,” explained Tim, who was awarded an MBE in 2011 for his work with very young children and young people with disabilities.

Vicki Kennedy, Sunderland Culture’s Great Place Scheme Producer, said: “Everyone at the workshop enjoyed the day and learned so much from Tim. It was about upskilling teachers, Sunderland Culture staff and arts practitioners and giving them the confidence to work with multi-sensory tools through performance in order to engage with young people with complex disabilities.

“These children can be very hard to engage with, but Tim and Oily Cart have done inspirational, groundbreaking work in this area and it was great for us to work with him for the day. There’s no reason for children with any sort of disability to miss out and Sunderland Culture continues to work hard to make the arts accessible to everyone across the city.”

The Uncover programme is working specifically with three schools in Washington – Biddick Academy, Usworth Colliery Primary School and Columbia Grange School, which is designated for pupils between the ages of two to 11 who have severe learning difficulties and/or autism.

Vicki explained: “Uncover is working with primary and secondary age children in mainstream schools and with SEND children to develop a creative cultural passport in our test schools – we then hope to roll out our work across the wider city.”

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