Lubna Reid introduces her play group for autistic children
On 14th March last year it was a typical Saturday afternoon at the Lancaster Centre in Enfield for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The SEN-den playgroup was brimming with activity, children explored the sensory toys – some alone, some playing alongside others. Parents queued to see the speech and language therapist, keen to ask questions about their child’s communication.
It was a safe space for the children to play, a safe space to access specialist information, and a safe place for parents to interact with other families on their journey, navigating all things SEND. A safe place to go – and just be.
But then Covid-19 struck. We went into lockdown for five months. Playgroups were put on hold. Autistic children considered vulnerable enough were offered school places, others were not. Some kids loved being away from the anxiety-provoking school day. Others struggled with the sudden, prolonged, uncertain change of routine. There was no longer a safe place to go.
Going to the local playground with young, autistic children, for fresh air and exercise, was an ordeal for many of SEN-den’s families – for some, it was impossible. It was too busy, too loud, and too many potential hazards to deal with for children with lower awareness of danger.
Families of neurotypical children watched, noticing the different ‘unusual’ behaviours and communication styles of the neurodiverse children. SEN-den families felt judged. It was not fun, or relaxing. Our families needed a safe place to go.
I was a schoolgirl in Enfield 30 years ago, then left for university, followed by years working on community projects around the world. I returned in 2013 to raise my own family. I was struck by the lack of regular, inclusive play opportunities for young, autistic children. So I founded SEN-den 18 months ago, to provide play opportunities and signpost families to the information and services they need, across education, health and social care – even practical things, like a safe place for the dreaded haircut; we recommend Adam at Town Barbers!
Our aspirations for the future? Well, we hope never to find ourselves in lockdown again. But we would also love to work with Enfield Council, local businesses, and benefactors in the community to build a specially-adapted playground, so that young, autistic children in Enfield, and their families, always have a safe place to go, to play – and just be.
Autism Awareness Week runs until Sunday 4th April. We celebrate all families in Enfield affected by autism, and your amazing resilience through the lockdown. See you at SEN-den soon!