Rainbows Sensory Space, based on Seaham Grange Industrial Estate, officially opened its doors in March 2020 undeterred by strict, impending lockdown measures.
Founded by Fiona Pattison, a teaching assistant of 13 years, the centre provides a safe place for children, young people and adults with special needs to play, either alone, in groups, or with their families, in a controlled but fun environment.
Using a combination of light, sound, touch and smell, the space provides a bespoke sensory experience for stimulation, de-escalation or relaxation through a range of facilities, including an accessible soft play area with ceiling track hoists and sensory rooms with bubble tubes, fibre-optic lights, projectors and mirrors.
Fiona initially hoped to host classes at the centre for those suffering from conditions such as physical disabilities, learning disabilities or sensory impairments and their families, however, like many others, she has been forced to pivot and adjust her business due to the pandemic.
She said: “In order to create the perfect sensory space we offered free sessions to the families of profoundly disabled children in exchange for their honest, valuable feedback. By reaching out to those families pre-opening, it not only helped us understand what was most important to them but also enabled us to adapt the sensory space to meet the needs of a wide range of special needs and disabilities. Hartlepool’s Springwell School, The Sensory Place and The Special Lioness Groups also conducted focus groups and their support has been invaluable.
“Originally, prior to Covid, we were hoping to set up sessions where parents and carers could meet others who were caring for people with special needs, however we’ve been unable to deliver on that promise due to the pandemic. Despite this, we’ve been able to adjust our offering to deliver private classes to families and the response we’ve had has been overwhelming.
“Not only has this helped us get the business off the ground but it has also allowed us to provide a welcome form of escapism to vulnerable people shielding during the pandemic, many of whom would really struggle to experience anything like this anywhere else.
“We have also enjoyed supporting charities including Autism Parents Together and Leo’s Neonatal Charity and the feedback from the parents has been amazing. They’ve been able to use the sensory space on an exclusive basis which has not only nurtured family relationships and supported child development, but also given families a safe and secure place to visit with vulnerable children. We’re delighted with how it has been received so far.”
Fiona launched the business after losing her brother to a rare neurological disorder at the age of 19 and witnessing first-hand the lack of accessible centres that provided activities where families and carers could rest assured that they were free to enjoy themselves in a relaxed environment.
“I lost my brother to Alexander Leukodystrophy,” Fiona added. “Due to the nature of his disability, we often struggled to find anywhere to take him that was accessible and catered for people with similar conditions once they’d reached a certain age. The majority of places we’d generally visit didn’t have disabled access, hoists or changing stations, which made it really difficult to find anywhere suitable.
“After his passing, I knew there’d be so many other families who found themselves in similar positions to us and I wanted to create something that was inclusive to all, by supporting adults with special needs as well as children, and I decided to bite the bullet and launch Rainbows Sensory Space.
“I have my Dad, who passed away in 2017 after battling a progressive form of renal cancer and my courageous young brother to thank for my inspiration. Rainbows Sensory Space was created in remembrance of these two very special people.”
Prior to launching the centre, Fiona worked in special needs education and had no prior experience of running a business. She was then signposted to the North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC) and - working alongside business adviser Janice Marsh - was able to tap into support to help get the business started.
She added: “The BIC have been amazing throughout. Janice was full of great advice and I lent on her support quite a lot during the planning and start-up stages, it was a huge help knowing she was just a phone call away.
“The team have also been great by helping us ensure we are Covid-compliant. I can’t thank them enough for their support.”