Ear Defenders – what they are and cheap models

Ear defenders or ear muffs are PPE (personal protective equipment) designed to protect the wearer from extreme noises. They’re usually used by people like builders, mechanics, and other people who do work where they are exposed to repetitive loud noises. However, for some people like those with autistic spectrum conditions, noise sensitivity, William’s Syndrome, PTSD, or other conditions that might cause acute hyperacusis (noise sensitivity) ear defenders can be immensely useful for helping to dull the overwhelming noise of everyday life.

Some people use noise cancelling headphones instead of ear defenders. I plan on doing a post soon about cheap models of NC headphones, but for now I’ll just mention so-called passive defenders (e.g. ones without microphones that cancel noise).

So, here are 5 pairs of ear defenders under £10 (for comparison, most are £20 or over):

1.) Warrior 25 dB Ear Defenders (0114M) – £1.85 from Nationwide Workwear

Ear Defenders. Large padded foam-filled ear cups with height adjustment.
– Lightweight & Robust
– Cost Effective Protection
– Durable
– Adjustable Size
– ABS Cups, Polypropylene Head Band & PVC Covered Open Cell Foam Pads

2.) The new Classic GP® – £7.35 from Safety Supply Company

The new Classic GP® ear defenders have been designed with comfort in mind for those requiring hearing protection for extended periods.
– Twin point mounted cups for even pressure distribution
– Self adjusting cups for a perfect fit & a good seal against noise
– Close fitting wire headband for Comfort Adjustability
– Low risk of entanglement on machinery
– Soft foam cushions for all day comfort
– Durable Acylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) cups
– Conforms to EN 352-1
– SNR = 27
– H=35 M=24 L=15

3.) Ear Defenders by Earbudeze – £9.50 (exc. VAT) from Sensory Direct

These ear defender can also be folded to fit easily in your bag or pocket and they come with a padded headband.
Approximate Product Dimensions: (H) 10 cm s (W) 12 cm (folded); (H) 17 cm x (W) 13 cm (opened).
– Lightweight, compact and easy to use
– Ear Defenders conform to EN352-1 and are CE marked
– Fully adjustable
– Suitable for ages from 12 months to Adult
Available in Blue, Red and Lime Green

4.) 3M Peltor Optime Protective Ear Muffs – £5.00 from SafetyShop

  • Soft, wide cushions for comfortable wear
  • Slimline cups for a more compact design
  • Sealing rings filled with fluid and foam

Their slim design makes these ear muffs easy to store and carry, which means they’re more convenient than some larger models. With their bright yellow design, they’re easy to keep track of and they increase the wearer’s visibility.

5.) Stanley Premium Ear Defenders 26dB SNR – £8.99 from ScrewFix

  • Soft, foam-filled ear defenders with fully adjustable, padded headband providing all-day comfort.
  • 26dB Standard Noise Reduction
  • ABS Plastic Construction
  • Adjustable, Padded Headband
  • Soft Foam Ear Cushion

 

Stay safe, friends. x

 

5 accessible places to go with your children this summer holiday in England

(This article is not sponsored by any of the companies mentioned. I aim only to raise awareness for and praise the efforts made by them.)

1.) The PlayPark in Exeter

Does your child love the playground? Is it sometimes difficult for them to play there though? I know when I was little, I liked the park the very best when it was quiet and no one else was there. However, the PlayPark in Exeter is the ultimate accessible playground in the UK, and the 6th most accessible in the world! For physically disabled children, and children with ADHD and Autism, this playground is a must-visit. Just a few of the features are the AbilityWhirl (a wheelchair accessible roundabout), a wheelchair-friendly seesaw, and a swing set with Octavia (a device that provides pleasing noises to encourage children to keep swinging and being active).

You can download a PDF to make a social story here: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/37df48_ecb13b09e37f4cfa8b1f5fd7a713bbe4.pdf

Check out the website for more details on the playground here: https://www.theplaypark.co.uk/play-equipment

2.) Warrington Play & Sensory Centre

Warrington, in Cheshire, is home to the Warrington Play and Sensory Centre – an indoor soft play built to be accessible for children and adults with limited mobility, sensory problems, and includes a DVD player and chill out zones for easily overwhelmed guests. They have calm and active zones, a sensory room with a hoist, and a café (with a menu you can download beforehand on their website to prepare guests who need to know things like that in advance). As this venue is for both children and adults with disabilities, there is more room than there would ordinarily be in this kind of venue, so claustrophobia is less of an issue.

Their website is here: http://www.warringtonsensorycentre.org/

And their menu can be downloaded here: http://www.warringtonsensorycentre.org/media/1106/cafe-menu-new.pdf

3.) The Victoria & Albert Museum – London

One of the single most accessible places in London is this museum. If your child has autism, you can breathe a sigh of relief at how wonderfully inclusive they are here. The Museum has created family packs in the form of backpacks that can be borrowed for free from the Information Desk. They include maps, toys to touch, activity suggestions and ear defenders. PECS symbols and a photo booklet are included to help with communication, and have been created in collaboration with autistic children and their families. They have a quiet room, which you can ask the staff to point you toward in case of meltdowns.

People with autism can take a virtual tour before they go and download the pre-visit guide here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/moc/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/making-sense-pre-visit_8ee53a5dd7448164b9c6a42b6ae7eee5.pdf

Their website page on visiting with an autistic child is here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/moc/learning/sen/visiting-autistic-child/

4.) Ice Skating – Sheffield

iceSheffield has mobility ice sessions where wheelchairs are allowed on the ice, and stewards can be asked to push wheelchairs if contacted in advance. They also have bumper car sessions, which are very fun! A hoist is available in the downstairs changing room, and ramps and lifts mean the building is accessible. I have emailed asking for comments on when the next available session is, and I will let you know via Twitter (so follow @SafeCinemas and keep checking back!)

The website is here: https://siv.org.uk/ice_sheffield/icesheffield-disabled-access

5.) LEGOLAND Windsor

For any parent who has brought a child to LEGOLAND knows how much of an attack it can be on the senses. Huge primary coloured blocks, thousands of over-excited children, and you with your child in the eye of the hurricane. However, LEGOLAND have gone above and beyond to make their park accessible. Ride Access Passes are reserved for guests who do not understand the concept of queuing; have difficulties with everyday social interaction; have a limited capacity to follow instruction or to understand others’ emotional feelings or expressions, and may therefore become agitated or distressed if they had to queue for a ride for an extended period of time.

Wheelchair users may remain within their chair on the following rides and attractions:
LEGO® Star Wars™ Miniland Model Display
Aero Nomad
Heartlake Express
Olivia’s House
Hill Train
Loki’s Labyrinth
X-Box® 360 Gaming Zone

You can read their full accessibility guide here:

https://endpoint914114.azureedge.net/globalassets/windsor-2016/pdf-files/disability-guide/uvid-49c6b8/llw-may-2017-accessibility-guide.pdf

I hope this has given you some ideas about what you could do with your child. All of these are accessible to any able-bodied or neurotypical siblings, so it’s fun for everyone! If you have any other ideas, leave them in comments or tweet them at us!

Stay safe, friends. x

 

Shows making strides: Parenthood

Usually, when I review media, it’s books. They’re my thing, if you will; my comfort zone. But when I began watching Parenthood, I knew I had to let you all know about it. So, I present a new series(? perhaps that’s optimistic for me) called Shows Making Strides, highlighting TV shows that have represented neurodivergent characters. This week: Parenthood.

The show centres around the Buckmans, a midwestern family all dealing with their lives: estranged relatives, raising children, pressures of the job, and learning to be a good parent and spouse. Max Braverman (played by Max Burkholder) is the youngest child of Adam and Kristina Braverman, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s in the second episode of season 1. The show follows many different storylines, Max’s being just one of them, but it’s his I wanted to focus on in this post.

Parenthood shows not just how Max’s Asperger’s affects him, but the rest of his family and the people around him too. His sister Haddie feels jealous of the attention  he is given by their parents, and gets frustrated when her parents have to miss important events in her life like sports games because Max needs to be looked after. Kristina and Adam note the effect so much stress has on their sex life as well as how Max’s strict schedule can sometimes be limiting. Regardless of all of this, however, what is also shown is that their family love Max not despite his quirks but because of them. His family would go to the ends of the earth for him. Though Max’s grandfather is very conservative and starts the season believing some strict parenting can “cure” Max, he soon comes to agree that Max is perfect as he is.

“Some people say that having Asperger’s can sometimes be a bad thing. But I’m glad I have it, because I think it’s my greatest strength.”  – Max Braverman, Parenthood.

Many of the challenges Max faces will be familiar to autistic children and their parents. In episode 3, he smashes a fish-tank in a meltdown and his mainstream school tell his parents they can’t cope with his needs. He finds making friends extremely difficult, though his therapist does begin to bring him out of his shell in this aspect. Subjects like bullying, meltdowns, phobias are all covered, as well as the abyss of finding out your child is neuroatypical and not knowing how best to help them.

Despite being a very realistic portrayal, that takes great pains not to sugar-coat or romanticise Asperger’s, there are moments that will definitely remind any viewer on the spectrum just how powerful it can be to embrace their neuroatypicality. When Max runs for school council in later seasons, he gives a speech about how his Asperger’s is sometimes really good, because he can remember things easily and is very intelligent.

Max Burkholder (who plays Max Braverman on Parenthood) has been very vocal about how important he finds it to play the character not the condition on set of Parenthood. In an interview with Disability Scoop (which I’ll link below) Burkholder said that “I just think what Max might be feeling. He has special interests, like he loves bugs, anything about bugs. So whenever there’s something about bugs I try to seem really interested. But he doesn’t like to be touched so I make myself think that if this person touches me, it’s going to hurt a lot.” He also revealed that every few episodes, he meets with a doctor who has experience with Asperger’s to discuss how his character would react in the scripted situations, and what he might be thinking, as well as the kinds of things he might say if Burkholder needs to ad-lib. He talks about how he is more aware of sensory things now, knowing that his character would find them far more intense than he himself.

(Disability Scoop interview here: https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2010/11/09/parenthood/11084/)

If anyone is in need of a new TV show to obsess over during the summer holidays, look no further than Parenthood. If you have any shows/films/books you think Safe Cinemas ought to talk about, tweet us at @SafeCinemas and let me know!

Stay safe, friends. x

 

Pauline Hanson’s views on educating children with autism, and 5 tips for teachers in mainstream schools to help autistic students

On Thursday, The One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson declared that the impact autistic children had on their neurotypical classmates was an issue. Many parents of autistic children and behavioural specialists retaliated, saying this painted the children in an unfairly bad light, and their behaviour as intentionally disruptive rather than the involuntary effects of their condition. In an age where the behaviour of autistic individuals is already measured against a neurotypical norm, children with disabilities are already misunderstood.

“I hear so many times from parents and teachers whose time is taken up with children in the classroom where they have a disability, or where they are autistic, that it is taking up the teacher’s time,”

“These kids have a right to an education by all means but, if there is a number of them, these children should actually go into a special classroom, looked after and given that special attention.

“I think that we have more autistic children and yet we are not providing the special classrooms or the schools for these autistic children and, if there are, they’re at huge expense to parents.

“We have to be realistic at times and consider the impact that is having on other children in that classroom.”

– Pauline Hanson, One Nation leader

Whilst she has since apologised, her comments raise an important issue about how we view neuroatypical children in schools. Obviously, everyone deserves a right to learn, and that extends to neurotypical children as much as to neuroatypical children. However, the rhetoric Hanson has set out sets a dangerous precedent: that the wellbeing of autistic students should be second to the learning of neurotypical children. Rather than getting into the politics of this statement, I’m offering 5 tips for teachers in mainstream schools on  helping their autistic students thrive. I’m not a professional, or an educator, but I do have personal experience – and that is what this advice is based on. Not everything will work for every child, so my ultimate tip is always to talk to the child themselves and their parents. However, here are a few more general tips and tricks!

 

5 Tips For Mainstream Teachers on Helping Their Autistic Pupils to Thrive at School:

1.) Quiet spaces

For a lot of people with autism, sensory overload is a real issue. Having somewhere they can go at lunchtime, or during times when everyone is busily playing in the classroom, having somewhere quiet to go and calm down, read, or play quietly alone is a great way of avoiding meltdowns, making your student with autism feel safe, and making sure the rest of the class can keep working while that student calms down.

Image result for quiet space

2.) Schedules

For many autistic people, having a schedule helps to keep them feel calm and minimises the amount of change and spontaneity they have to handle in a day. Many schools have a timetable, so if you can stick to this, do. If there will be a change to the schedule, inform your autistic pupil ahead of time, and support them through that change if they need it.

3.) Fidgets

Before any teachers wince at the thought of fidget spinners, consider this: before everyone and their mother had one, fidget toys like this have been used by autistic people for years. If you don’t want to allow fidget spinners, find a fidget you don’t mind your pupil having to help them focus. That may be a little ball of blu-tack or a kick band on their chair. Be considerate: fidgets aren’t toys for people who need them; they’re tools.

Image result for fidget tools

4.) Punishments

Sometimes, it isn’t appropriate to punish autistic children for the same things we punish neurotypical children for. Before anyone comments saying “children with autism shouldn’t be excused for bad behaviour because of their condition”, let me explain. There is a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, and punishing a meltdown is wrong. It isn’t a response to not getting a toy they want, it is a reaction to overstimulus. In many other situations too, we must remember that how we treat neurodivergent children shouldn’t be based off of a neurotypical rule book.

Image result for tantrum vs meltdown

5.) Educate!

Children who have autism can find navigating social situations difficult. What makes that more difficult is if the people around them don’t understand them. It is important for the rest of your class to know about autism, and how we are all different. You can download some autism awareness lesson plans here:

http://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/world-autism-awareness-week/schools.aspx

 

Let me know if you have any other tips for teaching children with autism below, or tweet us!

Stay safe, friends. x

Top 3 Doc/Fest recommendations – Sheffield 9-14 June

Sheffield Doc/Fest is a film festival comprising; inspirational documentary films from across the globe; controversial discussion panels and in-depth filmmaker masterclasses; a marketplace offering a unique way to pitch new and groundbreaking documentary projects; and world-famous parties. So, with so much on, how do you know what to see? Here at Safe Cinemas, we’re recommending to you 3 of the best looking mental health, neurological, and other related events so you can see the things you’ll find most interesting.

So, here’s our top 3 picks for this year’s Doc/Fest:

The Departure (18)

(trigger warning: suicide)

Emmy-award winning director Lana Wilson (After Tiller) chronicles one Zen Buddhist priest’s difficult emotional labour of suicide prevention. A former tearaway youth with nihilistic tendencies, Ittetsu Nemoto feels a natural kinship with the people he counsels. But it has come at the cost of his own mental and physical health, both of which rapidly deteriorate as he is unable to detach from the deep yet morbid bonds he strikes at work.

Tickets here: https://sheffdocfest.com/films/6260 (9th and 10th of June)

Still Tomorrow (18)

At the heart of director Jian Fan’s filmic portrait lies the melancholy brilliance of poet Yu Xiuhua, a farmer living with cerebral palsy in rural China. In a social climate that is hostile to people with disabilities, she copes with her heartbreaking frustrations by writing poems. One of them, an unflinching portrayal of her sexuality, explodes on Chinese social media and changes the course of her life.

Tickets here: https://sheffdocfest.com/films/6206 (9th June)

Unrest (18) – film

Struck with a debilitating illness and unable even to sit in a wheelchair after a bout of high fever, filmmaker Jennifer Brea took to her camera to make sense of what she was going through. With many questions left unanswered by medical experts, Brea turns to the internet and finds not only that her condition has a name – myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) – but along with it a supportive community of sufferers.

Tickets here: https://sheffdocfest.com/films/6210 (9th and 11th June)

You can also try the VR experience of ME at The Millennium Galleries, to see an insight of what it is like to live with an invisible illness.

 

These are just 3 of the many documentaries on offer at this year’s Doc/Fest, and we’ve only focused on mental health and neurology related films. Other events we’re particularly looking forward to are Grandad, Dementia and Me, Queerama, and The Work. If you’re free in Sheffield from the 9th to the 14th, you’re in for a treat!

 

Stay safe, friends, and happy doc/fest-ing. x

The Curious Incident at the Lyceum: play review

Mark Haddon’s award-winning book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has been adapted for the stage, and the execution of it is beautiful. The play is the winner of 7 2013 Olivier Awards and 5 2015 Tony Awards, and deservingly so. The book itself was the winner of more than 17 literary awards. Clearly, the story and everything surrounding it, is something spectacular.

Curious-Incident-of-the-Dog-in-the-Nighttime-cr-Brinkhoff-Mogenberg.jpg

Christopher, fifteen years old, stands beside Mrs Shears’ dead dog. It has been speared with a garden fork, it is seven minutes after midnight and Christopher is under suspicion. He records each fact in the book he is writing to solve the mystery of who murdered Wellington. He has an extraordinary brain, exceptional at maths while ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He has never ventured alone beyond the end of his road, he detests being touched and he distrusts strangers. But his detective work, forbidden by his father, takes him on a frightening journey that upturns his world. – http://www.curiousonstage.com/about-the-show/

5-The-Curious-Incident

Christopher has ASD, and the play acts as a Shakespeare-esque play-within-a-play, as narrated by Christopher’s mentor Siobhan. The delicate and intricate details of the play’s structure is wonderful, pulling you straight out of the audience and into the action – from the reference to the audience to Christopher’s post-curtain-call maths lesson. The whole stage design is a work of genius, set out on a grid that is adapted to create houses and other props as needs be with the use of light projection to make realistic but non-existent walls. The cleanness of the set means that the focus is entirely on the action rather than overly elaborate sets. Christopher also uses chalk to show the audience how he distinguishes between happy and sad faces, to great effect. Even sat as far back as I was in the audience, the effect was not lost upon me.

The-Curious-Incident-of-the-Dog-in-the-NightTime-5199

The play itself will obviously attract the interest of ASD individuals, but I feel obligated to issue a fair warning: take into account sensory issues before going to see it. It’s absolutely brilliant, and gives a really good insight to people not on the spectrum of what a meltdown is like. However, to do this effectively, there is a lot of sensory output, including flashing lights and very loud noise. I coped with just closed eyes and my hands over my ears, but if you’re more sensory than me then earplugs might be a good idea.

If you do get to see it while it tours the UK, I’d love to hear what you think. It’s a brilliant adaptation, and a great play in its own right.

Stay safe, friends. x

 

Why we need to stop using ‘autistic’ as an insult

Recently, I’ve seen a huge rise in the number of people using ‘autistic’ as an insult. Obviously, this is totally unacceptable. Every day on the bus, around school, or in the streets, I hear it thrown around: “Don’t be so autistic and just text her” or whatever. And it makes my skin crawl. It’s so blindingly ignorant. It needs to stop, and let’s talk about why.

It isn’t a new phenomenon, and it certainly isn’t limited to school kids. 50 Cent got himself into trouble a few years ago for the tweeting that “I don’t want no special ed kids on my time line follow some body else” and saying a troll “look[ed] autistic”.

1

Similarly, it certainly isn’t the first time people have used something fairly arbitrary as an insult, since anyone on the Internet in 2011 will remember when every other YouTube comment said ‘GAY’ as if this was some kind of cutting insult. But, just like sexuality, neurology isn’t something that works as an insult, because it isn’t something negative.

The dictionary definition of an insult is:

a disrespectful or scornfully abusive remark or act.

But lots of famous people have autism, and you probably wouldn’t associate them with the same negative stereotypes you think of when you use it as an insult. Some of these celebrities include:

(Hover over the images to read captions)

The only reason people think ‘autistic’ is an insult is because of the stigma attached to it that isn’t attached to other neurological conditions, such as ALS or Multiple Sclerosis. Even the stigma around mental health is starting to ease somewhat, because of the huge media push to dispel the negative stereotypes. However, that same effort hasn’t been put into dispelling rumours and assumptions about autistic people, and thus it is still used as an insult. Nowadays, hearing someone use ‘gay’ as an insult is still not uncommon, but most people generally understand it’s a pretty empty insult because there isn’t anything bad about being gay – save for a bigoted minority.

However, some of the assumptions about autistic people focus entirely on the negative and not at all on the positive traits associated with the condition – and utterly ignore the obvious point that every person with the same diagnosis is different. Some of these assumptions include:

  • “they can’t handle the basic things everyone else can deal with”
  • “they have below average IQ”
  • “they can’t be creative”
  • “they don’t want to talk to people”
  • “they all have a savant skill”

rkvNGClGnHuUsVa-1600x900-noPad

In fact, none of these are true. The word ‘autistic’ is not synonymous with ‘insensitive’ or ‘awkward’. Autistic is only synonymous with ‘person who has autism’, nothing else. And that isn’t an insult, so we need to stop using it as one. Because when we start understanding that words like ‘gay’ or ‘autistic’ aren’t actually offensive, we might start to be able to progress toward something less bigoted.

If you’re one of the people who use ‘autistic’ as a synonym for insensitive, uncool, or whatever, I’ve made you a helpful infographic of what you’re actually saying when you say ‘autistic’:

wordle

Stay safe, friends. x

 

 

 

 

What are fidget spinners, and why are they being banned in schools?

Pokémon cards, loom bands, and spinners; what do they all have in common? You might be wondering that yourself. Well, it turns out they’re all crazes that have swept school playgrounds in the U.K., and spinners are the latest edition to the infamous list of items most likely to be found confiscated.

The propeller-shaped gadgets, which come in a variety of colours, have ball bearings which allow them to spin. Girls and boys alike are collecting them, and – like most fads – they’re being banned for being a distraction in the classroom. Available everywhere online, and even at market stalls, fidget spinners are taking the nation by storm. Their tendency to distract children, and the soft whirring noise they make as they spin, are driving teachers to distraction.

Image result for hand spinners

However, the toys weren’t made to be a popular fad. Originally, they were developed for children with conditions like Autistic Spectrum Disorders and ADHD – ironically – to help them concentrate. Fidgets are nothing new to any person who knows someone with ADHD or the like, and there are hundreds of guides online for DIY-ing homemade fidgets and sensory toys. Things like fidget cubes, kick bands, and stress balls (the latter perhaps being the more popularised) have all been around for a while. I remember being a little girl and my dad bringing me home a tangle toy. But the problem with this is that now, the children who they were originally designed to help, could risk having their fidget tools taken off them because children who find them fun are being distracting in lessons with them.

So, what’s the problem: well, some children with conditions like ASD and ADHD – especially those in mainstream schools – rely on tools like spinners and stress balls in stressful situations to keep them calm, or help them focus on what they’re doing. Generally, a school policy on this is that as long as a fidget isn’t distracting, loud, or the privilege of using one isn’t being abused, they’re perfectly acceptable. A lot of children can be really self-conscious about their fidget toys, and fidgeting in general, having been told off or told to “sit still” by teachers before. You can empathise with them that now it’s a popular craze, something that once seemed to exclude them as different has been adopted into the mainstream in an unusual turn of events.

Related image

However, that’s just where the positive side of things comes in. By popularising the use of spinners, children are now becoming aware of conditions like ADHD and Autism. CBBC’s Newsround talks about it in a statement from this article on their website:

“They were originally designed to help kids with conditions like autism deal with stress, but have now become a popular toy.” – CBBC Newsround

Similarly, something that was once seen as unusual or different is now something that children are interested in. It opens up a conversation for individuals who do use fidgets to talk about them, what they are, and how they help. It can also help individuals who need them feel less self-conscious, breaking down stigma, and raising awareness.

Some comments from the Newsround discussion sum the debate up well:

Emily, 14, from Brentford says:

“[They’re] not distracting I have got autism and it helps me concentrate in all my lesson I got a 6a because of the hand spinner my brain works better”

Jasmine, also 14, adds:

“I think fidget spinners are good for calming. I have one myself but I have it for a reason. So if they get banned I can’t use it when I need it”

Whereas a Year 6 class from Darlington thinks that

“Fidget spinners should only be used for children who have fidgeting problems. Children with autism, ADHD or other special needs. We think they have been banned in schools because children are playing with them and not doing their work. In our class two people like to use fidget spinners because it helps them to concentrate on their work and reading. Fidget toys should only be used at break times, dinner times and home time for people who don’t need them. They should only be used outdoors unless you have a special need.”

(You can read the full Newsround discussion here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/39802246)

The general consensus is that they should be banned in classrooms, use exclusive to lunch and break times. But what are the implications of this rule on the children who need them?

Let me know your thoughts on the debate in the comments, and stay safe, friends. x

 

 

 

Interview: Elly Brewer (Tracy Beaker Returns writer) on why diversity in children’s TV is important

If you didn’t manage to see the last Safe Cinemas blog, you might want to check it out before we get into this. You can click here to see it.

Today, friends, we have a very special guest on Safe Cinemas, who I’m very grateful has taken some time out of her busy schedule to talk to us: the wonderful Elly Brewer. Elly is an award-winning writer, having written for shows. Namely, she wrote for Tracy Beaker Returns and the BAFTA winning show The Dumping Ground. In my last article (see, it all links together – there’s method in the madness of my upload schedule!) one of the characters we talked about was Gus, a character Elly and her colleague Ben Ward created for Tracy Beaker Returns and The Dumping Ground. Her script for the episode What Would Gus Want (The Dumping Ground 5×1) won the Writers Guild of Great Britain Best Children’s TV Script Award. You can read more about that episode on the last post.

Image result for elly brewer

In case you didn’t see my last post, I’ll give you a bit of background before we start the interview about the shows and who Gus is. Tracy Beaker Returns and The Dumping Ground are set in a children’s care home, Elmtree House. If the name “Dumping Ground” rings a bell, you’ve probably heard of Tracy Beaker, a character who starred in her own ’00s show about life in care, and has now returned as a careworker at Elmtree House after publishing a book about her life as a child in care. Gus is one of the children who lives at Elmtree House, who (it is heavily implied) has ASD. This makes him anxious to keep tidy, keep to a strict schedule and causes him to take things metaphors literally. He is also known to ask frequent questions when he does not understand. Now you’re all caught up, let’s chat to Elly!

 

When you were creating the character of Gus, was raising awareness ever an intention, or was that simply a happy by-product?

I just looked back at my meeting notes – Gus is in the list of proposed characters, right from the beginning.  It’s nearly ten years ago, so forgive my hazy memory.  I don’t think we ever specifically said – we have to raise awareness – but there was always an intention from the development team that we wanted to show a diverse group of young people.

 

To create a character like Gus, did you have to do research into ASD? If so, how?  

I know I would have read a lot around the subject.  And once the show was up and running, we had a researcher working on it and she’d find things out for us, when we needed specifics.  I do remember that we never wanted to name or label what Gus’ condition may or may not have been.  

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What do you think of the response there has been to the character?

From the feedback I’ve had over the years, I know the response has been extremely positive which is lovely.

 

Dame Jaqueline Wilson wrote the books on which the original TV show was based. What was it like following that up?

I did the development work for the original Story of Tracy Beaker and was Lead Writer for Series One.  I remember reading the book for the first time and it made me cry.  It was wonderful, getting a chance to bring such a well-loved character to the screen – and a big responsibility.  Then, when CBBC wanted to bring Tracy back as an adult, they approached me to see if I’d like to develop it with them.  And of course, I did!   For the first two series of Tracy Beaker Returns I developed and co-wrote with a friend of mine, Ben Ward (Horrible Histories/Danger Mouse).  And on both ‘Story of’ and ‘Beaker Returns’, I always tried to be faithful to Jacqueline’s original style and tone.

 

I know that I myself identified with Gus hugely when I was younger. How important do you think it is for children to have characters like themselves on TV?

I think it’s really important that young people can watch characters they relate to and who reflect their lives.  Surely it must help, if you’re finding life a bit of a struggle and can see that other people are going through similar experiences.  I also think it’s important for young people to see aspirational characters too.

Image result for gus from the dumping ground

What’s your opinion on the argument that showing conditions like ASD in children’s shows is pointless because they don’t understand it anyway?

That’s not an argument I’ve ever come across.  And I’m a firm believer in never underestimating or patronising the audience.  The majority of shows I’ve worked on – particularly over the last ten to fifteen years – have been very mindful of the need to portray a range of diverse characters.  

 

Gus’s storyline was important from start to finish, when he was adopted by a gay couple. Since then, CBBC has included a lot of diversity. How important do you think that is?

I’d been wanting to do a gay fostering story for a while and when I found out that Noah Marullo, who played Gus, was leaving, it seemed the perfect exit story for him.  I don’t think CBBC including a lot of diversity has anything necessarily to do with Gus leaving TDG.  In the past they’ve had quite a few shows with differently-abled (if that’s the right phrase?) characters.  I just think it’s that people are talking about ‘diversity’ far more these days than they ever did so there’s a much greater awareness – which is definitely no bad thing.  

Image result for what would gus want

How does it make you feel that, for a lot of children (both for those who were like Gus and those who had no experience of the condition) he was probably the first character with a condition like Asperger’s that they’d ever seen?

Ben and I were really proud of Gus.  I always loved writing for him.  And if it helped reassure and/or educate viewers about people on the Autistic Spectrum, then that’s great.

 

Lastly, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to me, and for writing a character who meant so much to both me and a lot of the other Safe Cinemas friends.

You are very welcome!

 

Stay safe, friends. x

Why Tracy Beaker Returns is revolutionary in diversifying children’s TV

If you were a kid in the early ’00s, you remember Tracy Beaker. Her signature crazy curls, the Jacqueline Wilson books, and the iconic TV show starring Dani Harmer on CBBC. What you might not remember is that, in 2013, the spin-off shows Tracy Beaker Returns and The Dumping Ground were airing, and they were amazingly progressive for a network that has sometimes come under fire for lacking diversity.

You might remember that, in the original series, The Story of Tracy Beaker, Cara Readle played the character of Layla, a girl with cerebral palsy. Since then, the cast has expanded to include a huge range of diverse characters, so allow me to introduce you to them.

 

Like Layla, the character of Frank Matthews, played by Chris Slater, also has cerebral palsy, though this fact is something that none of the children ever really comment on, accepting it as a part of him. He’s a trickster along with his best friend Liam, and the fact he has a disability is pretty secondary to his character’s role in the show: one half of the partner in crime duo that cause mischief and mayhem within the Dumping Ground.

Bailey Wharton, played by Kasey MacKeller, is a keen footballer – though he is often accused of being arrogant for making comments about his superiority on the pitch. It’s revealed in the later series of The Dumping Ground that he is dyslexic, and he eventually lets his act of anger fall away to reveal a kind and caring person beneath the surface of overconfidence.

Finn McLaine is played by Ruben Reuter, and has Down’s Syndrome. After being maltreated by his foster parents, along with Harry (or, as I remember him ‘Giraffe Boy’), and ended up back in foster care at Ashdene House after not adjusting well to his foster home, and being treated poorly by his foster family. Finn is sensitive, and can get angry and upset when he’s frightened. He’s thoughtful and resourceful, and his character’s arc is intriguing.

Kitty (portrayed by Eleni Foskett ), a character who has an only brief role in the series, is extremely quiet and withdrawn, due to the fact she has unconfirmed (but greatly hinted to) autism. She doesn’t like most people touching her, and inadvertently causes Tracy to fall downstairs when she tries to defend herself against a hug. She’s extremely thoughtful and loves sewing, using her talents to make fellow Dumping Ground inhabitant Carmen a pillow out of her ruined dresses. Eventually, she is sent to a different care home that can cater for her particular needs.

Lastly, also on the autistic spectrum, is Gus Carmichael (played by Noah Marullo), who has (again, never outwardly stated but heavily implied) Asperger’s Syndrome (aka, ASD). He asks questions all the time, has a strict schedule, and writes everything down that happens in the Dumping Ground in his notebooks. In the series The Dumping Ground, he has a meltdown in the first episode because everything is too chaotic when the other children start fighting. He is eventually adopted by a lesbian couple (Ronnie and Dawn), another progressive and welcome move from the BBC to include diversity in the form of LGBT representation.

Since then, CBBC has made enormous progress on the diversity front. For one, one of the main characters, Benny, on the network’s show Wizards vs. Aliens comes out as gay to his best friend, who is hugely accepting, setting a brilliant example for children that being different is something that makes us special rather than being something “wrong”.

There’s obviously a lot more to do, but when I think back to my childhood, I realise just how much this show shaped me. I was probably just a little too old to have properly watched it, but I definitely remember watching some of the episodes on a Saturday morning. I was transfixed by Gus, who was so like me. Tracy Beaker was probably my first experience of what cerebral palsy was, my first look at what a panic attack looked like, and I can’t imagine how much it must have shaped my expectations of the world in how wonderfully diverse it was. Tracy Beaker, you deserve more recognition.

Stay safe, friends. x

 

(To see the names of the actors/characters in the photos, simply hover over them with your cursor)