Key into the arts for young people with autism

May 22, 2023

Image courtesy of Turtle Key Arts

Exposure’s autistic author, Max Ferreira looks at a club for young people like him to experience the arts

As a young person with autism I remember taking part in some artistic projects in primary school, like creating handmade pictures and musical sessions on percussion.

For some people, doing creative activities outside their comfort zone can be overwhelming, whether it’s going on stage or sketching something new onto a blank canvas.

I wondered if there were any arts clubs in London that can provide something for young people with autism and I discovered a group called The Key Club. It’s a monthly club for young people with autism run by Turtle Key Arts.

Turtle Key Arts arranges creative art sessions and accessible performances for young people to take part in, in different venues around the UK.

I contacted Charlotte Cunningham from the Turtle Key Arts team to find out more

The idea for the Key Club came from a mother who couldn’t find suitable schools and provisions for her son with special needs. This spurred the members of Turtle Key Arts to set up and run a new club especially for young autistic people at Lyric Theatre in London to do creative arts and socialise with people.

Turtle Key Arts have since opened up another Key Club at Klin Theatre in Brent, London (known as Key Club @ Klin).

I contacted Charlotte Cunningham from the Turtle Key Arts team to find out more.

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Max: What’s your role at Turtle Key Arts?

Charlotte: I am the Artistic Director of Turtle Key Arts and helped to found the organisation in 1989. I also helped to start the Key Club all those years ago with my colleague Ruth Naylor Smith and we have been involved with the club ever since.

Max: What has the response been since The Turtle Key Arts’ Key Club opened?

Charlotte: The Key Club is a club for young autistic people that Turtle Key Arts have been running for 20 years. Our very first workshop was around music, colour (synesthesia) and we had a relatively small group at Paddington Arts where the workshop took place. The response has been extremely positive.

Having a place to come once a month, where it is possible to meet like-minded people and take part in structured creative workshops, can be really life changing for some of our members.

Activities include creating an art book, making a TV programme, devising a radio show and so much more

The Key Club moved to the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. There was so much demand in London that we started a second club in the afternoon at the Lyric. We have also run the club in Leeds and High Wycombe. The Key Club @Kiln will be the third roll out of the model.

Max: Can you tells us why you decided to set up a new Key Club @ Klin?

Charlotte: We spoke to one of our funders – John Lyon’s Foundation – and they were keen for more work to happen in Brent. According to their research, there is not enough provision in that area of London.

They have known about the Key Club for many years and were keen for our team to connect with the Kiln Theatre which they also fund.

We met with the team at Kiln and they were keen to partner on this with us and we applied together for funding to John Lyon’s Foundation who agreed to support the new club.

The Key Club @Kiln will run on one Saturday a month from 3.30pm until 6.30pm.

Image courtesy of Turtle Key Arts

Max: What kind of activities do you provide?

Charlotte: Creating an art book, making a TV programme, devising a radio show, putting on a drama performance, experiencing different types of dance, creating an animation, putting on a musical, devising a new opera, exploring circus skills, organising an arts exhibition and so much more.

Max: Does Turtle Key Arts work with charities or organisations relating to autism?

Charlotte: Turtle Key Arts and the Key Club have always worked with other charities related to autism including the NAS, Resources for Autism, Autistica, CAAS and many smaller, parent-led organisations.

Max: What have been some of the highlights so far?

Charlotte: The film that was being created in the year that lockdown happened and that was therefore finished by club members remotely by filming individually or meeting later on to film outside scenes. It was an astonishing achievement for the members during a very difficult time.

We are always available for anyone who is interested in getting involved as a volunteer or to work with us

Max: What makes the Key Club unique?

Charlotte: The Key Club is entirely aimed at autistic young people and it is a club that takes into consideration their needs and interests and then provides interesting and high quality creative workshops, on a monthly basis.

Max: What advice would you give to young people with autism about joining?

Charlotte: We are always available for anyone who is interested in getting involved as a volunteer or to work with us. People can join the club by applying via our website or by calling us directly (020 8964 5060). The motto of our company is access to the arts and that includes creating opportunities for work as well as participation in our projects.

We would hope to reach more young autistic people in different parts of London or the country.

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What I learnt is that Turtle Key Arts’ Key Clubs offer some unique opportunities for young people with autism and they are aiming to reach out to them around the UK, such as the Klin Theatre in this instance. It’s a bit like Exposure but with more arts activities involved.

I would definitely encourage young people like me to come out of their shells and join in to help gain confidence, experience and have fun in the
arts industries.