News & Events

Larne’s Little Mermaid Makes a Splash for Autism Initiatives Northern Ireland!

Young fundraiser kick starts partnership to teach children with autism swimming skills

This April, leading charity Autism Initiatives are teaming up with Belfast-based swim school Swimming Buddies to deliver a 10-week programme for children with autism. Running weekly at Fleming Fulton School, from 25 April to 27 June 2017, the fun 30 minute classes are specifically designed to provide those aged 4-12 years with the confidence and skills needed to enjoy swimming safely.

(L-R) Sarah Jane Woods, Grainne Close, Charlotte McIlroy & Colm Gilmore  

This new development for the charity joins a long list of innovative programmes delivered by Autism Initiatives’ support workers throughout Northern Ireland - classes include cycling, music and dance. Each activity is carefully designed to provide children and young people with autism the skills needed to take ownership over their lives. However, due to the required small class sizes needed to benefit each child, the charity relies heavily on funding, strong partnerships and kind donations to make these programmes a reality.

The latest programme has been helped greatly by the generous donation of keen swimmer Charlotte McIlroy, aged 11, from Larne. Understanding the importance of swimming skills, Charlotte fundraised for Autism Initiatives by cutting off her hair to raise over £500 to help bring affordable swimming classes to children with autism. In a world of noise that often overwhelms autistic children, water can provide comfort to many due to its relaxing sensory qualities. While this attraction to water can be extremely calming and beneficial, it can put those who cannot swim at risk.

Autism is a growing issue in Northern Ireland – as it is in the rest of the UK and Ireland – with record number of young children identified as having the condition. Grainne Close, national director of Autism Initiatives NI explained: Back in 2015, we conducted a 'Needs & Wants' survey with over 229 service users and their families. Swimming lessons were highlighted as the most wanted activity and it has taken us almost two years to find the right partner who we feel understands the needs of people with Autism.”

Close further explains: “Most of the families we support could not afford the full cost of £16 per half hour for swimming lessons. As a charity we wanted to make the swimming lessons more affordable and accessible. By fundraising we can reduce the cost by 50% and we’re delighted that Charlotte has kick started our fundraising efforts by raising over £500 for the swimming lessons. We’re excited to launch this life-saving programme and hope businesses and individuals across Northern Ireland will consider us when choosing a charity to donate to.”

(L-R) Sarah Jane Woods, Charlotte McIlroy, Colm Gilmore & Grainne Close

Charlotte McIlroy, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome said: "I chose Autism Initiatives NI because they taught me how to ride my bike last summer.  I am very grateful because it was a whole new experience for me and I never thought I would be able to ride a bike like my friends did."

"I am so glad that Autism Initiatives NI will be launching the swimming programme with the money I raised because it makes me feel very proud of myself. I love swimming and it has helped me conquer my fears. Now I can even jump into the deep end, even though I was really frightened at the start!”

Sarah Jane Woods, owner of Swimming Buddies said: We are delighted to be working in partnership with Autism Initiatives. Swimming Buddies aims to help all our buddies not only to stay safe in the water, but also to reach their full swimming potential while having fun and making new friends along the way.  Autism Initiatives’ invaluable expertise will help us to make the experience at Swimming Buddies the best it can be. This partnership allows us to provide all families with the opportunity to learn the key life skill of swimming.”

Spaces are limited and bookings can be made at Sports Booker with more information available at

To join the fundraising team or donate to this partnership please contact or visit