'Autism's Got Talent has given them the confidence to think I can do this'

‘If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it well.’

Those are the wise words of Dr Anna Kennedy. It's a sentence that she applies to her work every day and she is reaping the rewards.

With two sons both diagnosed with autism, Anna found there was very little awareness, support or opportunity for those with the disability. It wasn’t just her struggling to find guidance. People in a similar situation were finding the same issues and Anna decided to lead the change. Her charity was born in 2009.

A decade later and Anna is now one of the leading names in bringing positive autism awareness to the public’s agenda, both in the UK and abroad. Her tireless work in the last ten years even caught the attention of the Queen, who awarded her an OBE in 2012.

The charity’s busy diary doesn’t appear to be freeing up anytime soon. They provide workshops, training, legal advice and talks across the UK along with annual events such as the AKO Autism Expo, the Autism Hero Awards and the not-so-small matter of Autism’s Got Talent.

First produced and performed in 2012, this showcase of talent has just got bigger and bigger. There’s a red carpet, there’s celebrities but most importantly, there’s a brilliant production of a group of autistic children and adults who are able to show off what they can do.

“It started because of our anti-bullying campaign which was called 'give us a break'," she said. "Parents were writing to me about their children and adults being bullied either at school or at college, online or within the community.

"Then what also appeared were videos of children and adults who taught themselves how to play the guitar after teaching themselves via Youtube, or they had taught themselves how to be a magician via Youtube and all these talents started to emerge and I thought I've got to do something with this.

She asked for videos to be sent to her from people who have a ‘wow-factor’ talent. The response she had was overwhelming.

“All these videos started coming in," she added. "Some of them I was watching, the hairs on the back of my neck were going up. We decided to choose 16 and we thought ‘we are going to have to bring them in from all over the country and they're all going to have different needs.

“A lot of people thought I was mad, they were saying 'how are you going to put a show together in two days of children and adults travelling across the country? They've never met you, they've never met the stage people, they don't know what the theatre looks like.’

"But when people tell me that I can't do something, it makes me want to do it even more. And we came together and it was the best show ever. People were talking about it for weeks and weeks afterwards.”

The show would become an annual hit, growing in size and popularity. Applicants from all over the world have applied to play their part and the production has now developed into a roadshow, allowing more people to enjoy it.

“It's created a platform for children or adults to do other things. It's given them the confidence to think I can do this. When we first meet them, they look quite frightened and wary. They all arrive at 9am on the day, and then we show them the dressing room space and then we go through rehearsals.

“We start at 11 and once they've rehearsed they can go out, and then they come back and they're dressed for 5pm so we can have a group photo and a photograph on the red carpet, we've got celebrities that come as well to make it extra special and then they perform on stage. And they step it up like 250 per cent. When I'm watching them, I feel like my heart is coming out my chest because I know their stories of all of them, where they've come from.”

It's not only where they’ve come from, but where they’re going to as well, with success stories littered throughout the show’s history.

James Hobley’s dancing ability earned him a place at the English National Ballet School, Macauley Elvin’s anti-bullying song Hollow led him to performing alongside Spandau Ballet while ‘Atypical With Attitude’ (formally Autism with Attitude) have performed on BBC 1’s ‘The Greatest Dancer’ before coming second in the European United Dance Organisations Championships in Germany. The list of success is endless.

“It's just the best feeling ever. We don't have winners, it's just a showcase of talent. We didn’t want to add the added pressure of it being a competition. It's such a special show and everyone says you have to be there to appreciate what we're talking about.

“Behind stage is also magical as it's the friendships that are created, a lot of them haven't got friends and then they make friendships. We’ve had boyfriends and girlfriends, we’ve had families creating Whatsapp groups and then they're chatting together so it’s not only what's happened on stage, it's what happens off stage that is special as well. It's just amazing! I just love it so much!”

This year’s show was meant to take place in June but has sadly been postponed due to Covid-19. Anna is determined for the event to go ahead though, whether it’s on stage or virtually, and knows it’s possible with the help of her team.  

“I'm so grateful for my team and my volunteers because I couldn't do it without them, and we pull together. I couldn't do what I do without them and a lot of my volunteers have been with me for the last nine, ten years, they all think I'm mad! I just love what I do and I think when I lose my passion, my enthusiasm and my drive then it’s time for me to stop, and I just don't think I ever will. 

“We work hard as a team and a lot of people say we look very professional when we do things because we value what we do. I hate things that are tokenistic for people with disabilities, that just does my head in. It doesn't matter if a person's got a disability or not, if you're going to do something, you've got to do it well.”

AnnaKennedyOnline.com is a charity and relies on donations to allow them to maintain the excellent work they’re doing. If you’d like to donate or find out more, then all the details can be found at www.annakennedyonline.com

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