A new project in Kirklees will give adults with autism and learning disabilities the chance to pursue their passions and interests.
And for 20-year-old Mason Hemphill, who has Asperger syndrome, this means setting up a drama group in his home town of Meltham.
Mason has the most incredible memory and can quote large chunks of dialogue from films and television series, plays and cartoons, apparently without effort.
He is one of the 700,000 people in the UK living with autism.
Not everyone on the autistic spectrum has a gift – in fact it is extremely rare to be a ‘savant’ – but 20-year-old Mason has a formidable talent for impersonation coupled with an ability to memorise entire scripts, which he can recall on demand. From Last of the Summer Wine to The Mr Men, there’s little he can’t reproduce.
“He does the voices and everything,” says his mum Tracie. “His memory is outstanding and he’s very, very knowledgeable about films and television, particularly older TV series and vintage comedy.”
Diagnosed at the age of three, Mason is one of the fortunate few whose autism was identified early and he was given support throughout his school years.
Towards the end of his time in Honley High School, which has provision for those on the autistic spectrum, he became interested in the idea of pursuing drama and acting.
He explains: “When I was going into Year 10 I had to choose what subjects I wanted to study and I chose drama. It’s nice to be somebody else for a while and it’s interesting to see other people portraying someone who is entirely fictional.”
He is a member of both The Stage Company in Meltham and Honley Players (he played one of the lead roles in a recent production of Blood Brothers) and sings with Meltham Parish Church Choir.
And now, having completed a course in drama and performing arts at Kirklees College – graduating with distinctions and merits all round – he wants to set up his own drama group near his home in Meltham.
Mason is being helped in this venture by a new project called Do Your Thing, funded by Kirklees Council’s Community Partnerships.
Heading the project is Mark Finch, who has worked in social care for many years. He says Do Your Thing is an attempt to engage the large numbers of adults in the area who have a learning disability or autism but are not accessing social care services.
“There are an estimated 7,500 to 8,300 adults with a learning disability living in Kirklees, of which only 1,500 are known to the council,” he explained. “If you add the people who have autism then this figure becomes significant.
“A lot of people with learning disabilities and autism leave school and when they get to 19 or 20 find there’s nothing for them. They slip through the net.
“The idea of this project is to catch them, identify people who are getting little or no support and find out what they are good at or interested in.
“People tend to focus on the DIS-ability, not what they’re good at.”
And so Mark is helping Mason to establish his drama group, which will be open to all – both people with and without disabilities.
Mark says the idea is to form a theatre company that reflects the diversity of people in real life.
“My role is to act as a catalyst,” he adds, “and get people to come together to share their interests.
“I know of a lot of people who spend a lot of time in their bedrooms on their own.
“There’s quite a lot going on but they either don’t know about it or they don’t have a budget to access services that have to be paid for. I can help people set up groups or help them find a group to join.”
Initially, Mason plans to start rehearsing what he calls ‘Little Pieces’, which will be sketches from his favourite well-known shows such as Last of the Summer Wine, Bottom and ‘Allo ‘Allo!
First rehearsals will take place towards the end of the summer for a performance later in the year. (Anyone interested in joining the group should contact him on 07542664219).
“But I would like to write my own stuff,” he says. “I’d like to do a play about people not understanding disabilities.”
His mum and dad, Tracie and Robert, will support the new venture, as they have supported Mason throughout his life.
“We have always taken him out and done things with him,” said Tracie, who speaks highly of the help they got from the Huddersfield Support Group for Autism.
“We don’t want him to be a person who sits in his bedroom. I was determined that he was going to have a decent future.”
As well as starting his own drama group, Mason is a volunteer at the Kirkwood Hospice and Crossroads shops in Meltham, and for part of the year he is also a helper for Operation Christmas Child at St James’ Church.
His days have the routine and structure that is so important to people with autism. “And”, says Tracie, “he has a great social life.”
Mark is hoping that Do Your Thing will help more people with learning disabilities and autism fulfil their potential and connect with others.
He’s already working with someone who wants to set up a music group and wants others to come forward with their own ideas.
As he explains: “We want Do Your Thing to result in lots of new groups led by people with a learning disability and/or autism.
“We think some will be based on a shared love of activities like sport, food, music, IT, knitting or animals (the list is endless); some on shared passions such as politics or the environment and some on a share wish to help others.
“Why people come together is less important than the fact they do.”
Do Your Thing is hosting an open event at Huddersfield Mission on Thursday, July 21, from10am, to explain the project.
Mason has been invited to speak on his own involvement as well as how others can join in. Those interested in attending should book through Eventbrite or email email@example.com