Mark MacMillan: Welcome to the music festival especially for autistic people

I am a support worker at The National Autistic Society Scotland's Day Opportunity and Community Supports service. Our service gives autistic adults the chance to learn life skills and have new experiences, ranging from art classes to fishing to bingo. We talk to the people who use the service and their families to understand their interests, and then we plan our activities from there.

Mark MacMillan, support worker at The National Autistic Society Scotland

Our service is based on nearly five hectares of beautiful countryside in Catrine Bank, Ayrshire. We share the site with Daldorch House School and a Supported Living service, both run by The National Autistic Society Scotland. The Supported Living service provides accommodation for 21 autistic adults and helps them develop skills for independent living, such as cooking and using public transport.

The school and services are surrounded by meadows and woodlands, it’s a really great space for the people we support and one that we’re keen to use as much as possible. We run gardening sessions and we grow a lot of lovely fruit and veg – this year we even managed to grow grapes in the greenhouse.

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We regularly hold events for the people we support at Catrine Bank, such as film nights and discos. The discos are really popular. There is a misconception that autistic people need calm and quiet, but that’s not always true. Autism affects each individual differently, and some people respond really well to music and rhythm. Seeing the people we support up dancing and enjoying the songs at our discos makes me particularly happy as I’m a big fan of music and I play in a band myself.

Catrine Bank staff member Kevin Fullerton, resident Murray Robertson and Mark Lever, chief executive of The National Autistic Society (Picture: Martin Shields)

This summer we decided to hold a music festival at Catrine Bank. The idea behind this was to give autistic people the classic summer experience of being outdoors, braving the weather, and listening to live music in a comfortable and familiar environment. We called our event Music in the Meadow.

On the day, there was face painting, a BBQ and games – including “throw the sponge at the worker”, which our chief executive, Mark Lever, even took part in. We had special T-shirts made for everyone, and some people really got into the festival spirit by wearing wellies. Seven local bands and artists volunteered to play, including the father of one of the young men who stays at Catrine Bank, a pupil from Daldorch House School, and me! We rounded the festival off with a group singalong to The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, which was great fun.

All of the Catrine Bank staff came together to ensure that the people we support enjoyed themselves, and I’m very proud of what we achieved. There were different things we had to consider to make Music in the Meadow autism-friendly. For example, my colleagues developed a social story for each person who was attending. A social story is a way of describing what will happen using images. You break each thing you want to explain down into one picture – so we had different pictures to explain what to expect, the benefits of attending, and things that could be challenging for each individual.

Holding the festival in the meadow, just a short walk from our services, was ideal because it meant that people could return to a familiar place within minutes if they weren’t enjoying themselves. We also provided a quiet space away from the bands, and some people chose to wear ear defenders to help with sensory challenges – that wasn’t a reflection on the music, I promise!

Catrine Bank staff member Kevin Fullerton, resident Murray Robertson and Mark Lever, chief executive of The National Autistic Society (Picture: Martin Shields)

Because it was our first year, we kept the event small, inviting the people who stay at the Supported Living service and use the Day Opportunities service, their families, and pupils from Daldorch House School. I’m pleased to say the day was a real success, and I hope that Music in the Meadow will become an annual event for the local community and people supported by our charity across Scotland.

Through services like ours, The National Autistic Society Scotland strives to provide the best possible care and accommodation for autistic people, whilst also giving them interesting opportunities and new experiences.

Music in the Meadow was a great way to celebrate summer at Catrine Bank, and the people we support there can now say they’ve attended a music festival!

Mark MacMillan, support worker at The National Autistic Society Scotland