THE Sunderland Empire has become the latest visitor attraction to be awarded a Gold Standard Autism Acceptance Award by the North East Autism Society.  

Following a close eight-year partnership, and a devotion to making a real difference to theatre and Creative Learning services for autistic and neurodivergent visitors, the Sunderland Empire received the highest accolade granted by NEAS this week.

The North East Autism Society established the Autism Acceptance Award as a way of recognising organisations that are committed to making a real difference for autistic and neurodivergent individuals and their families.

The award is split into three phases (bronze, silver and gold) and places a focus on four key areas within an organisation: knowledge and understanding, changes to practice, environmental adjustments and collaboration. 

The Creative Learning team at Sunderland Empire have worked incredibly hard to make the services they provide as supportive, as understanding, and as accessible as possible, to ensure that as many individuals in the community as possible can access and enjoy performances and events within the venue on a regular basis. 

This work includes participating in autism awareness training sessions, collaborating with productions to create relaxed performances, delivering theatre tours ahead of visits, creating quiet spaces and activities when within the venue, as well as autism-friendly theatre groups including Curious Connections and Connect Company. 

Anthony Hope, Creative Learning Manager at Sunderland Empire said: “I’m so incredibly thrilled to accept the North East Autism Society’s award after 8 years working closely with NEAS. We’ve worked really hard to make formative changes to make our services and productions more inclusive and Autism-friendly.

It's so incredibly important that everyone who visits our theatre feels safe and comfortable and are able to enjoy productions without worry. I’m so excited to continue working with NEAS to further develop our autism resources so everyone in our region and beyond can benefit and fully experience our arts and cultural offering.

Kerrie Highcock, Family Development Manager at NEAS said: “It’s fantastic to see local businesses adapting their practices and taking into account the sensory needs and differences of autistic and/or neurodivergent individuals. 

"Sunderland Empire theatre has long supported our mission and have made a number of positive changes to improve its customer experience for autistic visitors and their families, such as putting on relaxed performances, appointing an autism champion and creating a visual story for the attraction.

While these changes might sound trivial to those of us who are neurotypical, they really can make such a huge difference to the lives of many families across the North East, and the Empire deserves recognition for its efforts and commitment to championing neurodiversity.